Through a Pen Darkly

Before the post, I want to mention that I have a couple of appearances coming up in New York City and the nearby town of Chappaqua. You can check them out here on the website by clicking “In Person” and then “Appearances.”

On June 26, 2018, Raina wrote, Does anyone else have the problem where a simple, relatively lighthearted story gets so bogged down by serious/heavy themes that it becomes a different story altogether, and not necessarily one you want to tell? My WIP started out as a relatively simple adventure about Snow White being resurrected with dark magic, but then it got complicated and went into some pretty deep issues about power, human nature, and society. And even though those are interesting themes that would be great to explore in a book, it’s not what I want to do right now. Is there any way to dial back the “seriousness” of a work without losing the general story?

Poppie answered, I’ve been wondering about that myself lately. One idea which I’ve been using in my WIP fairy story is to make sure there is plenty of humor. My MC Lio and his friends are being trained to rescue fairies from dangerous situations where they could end up killed. But Lio is a coward, which can add a lot of comedy to the situation and still have a message to send. I also have a character who isn’t totally comic relief but still has a lot of smart answers for every situation.

You could also NOT kill off beloved characters that play a big part in the story (although you can absolutely kill villains, and unimportant characters can die). In my WIP, fairies can (and do) get injured, but no one dies. You can have consequences, but not have them get dark, such as having a character struggle with survivor’s guilt the whole novel.

Raina wrote back, I agree, humor is a great way to lighten things up. For some reason humor comes harder for me when I’m writing YA (as opposed to when I’m writing MG), but I think this book might need it so I’ll definitely give that a try.

I’m with Poppie that not killing off characters allows the mood to stay light. Death is such a buzzkill!

And what Raina says about YA versus MG humor is interesting. Young adulthood is a daunting time. The complexities that pre-adolescents may not see jump out at teens, and ways to cope aren’t as developed as they (usually) become in adulthood. So the humor is different for the two groups. Here’s a joke I completely adore that I think is perfect MG humor, though it works for all ages: A snail, attacked by two tortoises, is unable to describe the incident to the police. “It happened so fast!” it says.

No sarcasm, no irony. We pity the poor, benighted snail even while laughing at its predicament.

By contrast, the saying, “Life is short and then you die,” is packed with irony and, I think, goes to the YA sweet-sour spot. I just googled “ironic jokes,” and some of the ones I found work to my ear, like this one: “I didn’t say it was your fault, I said I was blaming you.” Some are just nasty and unpleasant–I’d stay away from those.

There’s a marvelous, very old (1939) romcom called Ninotchka, directed by the legendary Ernst Lubitsch. The female lead, played by Greta Garbo, is a super-serious Soviet emissary of some sort. The male lead, played by Melvyn Douglas, tries to get her to laugh and fails utterly until he takes a pratfall. When he goes down, she laughs her head off. In my opinion, his spill is MG humor, and his humiliation at falling is YA.

Of course, these are gross generalizations. Some younger kids appreciate sarcasm and irony, and some teens continue to prefer slapstick and lighthearted humor.

But the message is that we can go dark and still be funny for the YA crowd. Black humor abounds in tragedy. Let’s look at a couple of examples from Shakespeare:

∙ Hamlet’s father comes back as a ghost, asking his son to avenge his murder. Dad is dead, but at last he’s confiding in his son. Mom conspired to kill him, but see how pretty she is when she smiles at Claudius. Hard not to be happy for her.

∙ Romeo and Juliet are both dead at the end, but some other people never find true love. Aren’t they really the ones to be pitied?

That was fun!

(Shakespeare does usually lighten his tragedies with comic interludes, but these are carried by minor characters, not the principals.)

Let’s darken a different fairy tale than “Snow White” so we don’t mess with Raina’s plot. Cinderella marries her prince and on her wedding night finds out he’s a vampire. She should have noticed his eager expression when one of the stepsisters cut off her heel to squeeze into the glass slipper (I don’t think this is in the Disney version). After she’s a vampire, too, Cinderella decides to get revenge on her stepfamily. She showers them with jewels and invites them to live at the castle. But sweet Cinderella still lives inside the vampire, and her two natures are constantly at war. Meanwhile the stepfamily members are as awful as ever. Everyone in the castle is vampiric. Cinderella goes back and forth between feeling she should protect them and maybe just scare them a little and remembering how beastly they were to her. I think this can be both funny and compelling.

Now let’s examine dark humor. Something has to really be at stake. If we’re talking about the premise of a novel or a story, what’s at stake has to be important: a relationship, a life, a way of life. Whatever.

If we want to illuminate a dark story with humor, one way to get there is with an MC who sees the funny side of things, whether she wants to or not. We’re not lightening our story. What’s bad continues to be bad. For example:

∙ Our MC is on a spaceship with mechanical difficulties. The likelihood of survival is slim. She can still have funny thoughts: death just when she’s figured out how to brush her teeth without getting toothpaste all over her forehead.

∙ She’s on planet earth. The love of her life breaks up with her. She still cares about him and decides to set him up with the perfect person for him. She even thinks, What can go wrong?

∙ I’m on my train home, as I often am when I write the blog. I imagine the conductor falling asleep and somehow (I don’t know what conducting a train involves) making the train go faster and faster. People are flying about the train car. I’m wedging myself under the seats because I’m small enough to do that. I hope no one’s been killed. I wonder if I’ll survive–and also wonder if we’re going faster than the bullet train in some parts of the world. Are we breaking any records? I hope we are! I hope the famous black box is getting it. We may die, but we’re making a contribution to humanity, and isn’t that what everybody wants, for their life to have meaning?

You may not be rolling in the aisles, but you see the humor. It’s all in the perspective of the character. Doesn’t have to be the MC, can be a secondary character or more than one.

Here are four prompts:

∙ Try “Cinderella with Vampires.” Cinderella doesn’t have to be the only character with a sense of humor. The prince can have one, too. So can some of the castle vampires and a stepsister.

∙ Try any of my tragicomic ideas above, including, if you dare, a re-envisioning of a Shakespearian tragedy to make it funnier but still sad.

∙ Write a scene between siblings. One is ten and the other sixteen. Somebody in the family is gravely ill. Show how the middle grade child and the young adult approach a serious situation. Make both of them seek relief in humor. Show how they do it.

∙ The most troubling fairy tale I know is “Hansel and Gretel,” since child abandonment sets off the story. Try your hand at a darkly humorous retelling for the YA crowd.

Have fun, and save what you write!

More Than You Know

On June 23, 2018, Samantha wrote, People always say “Make your characters feel pain!” In general I agree with this. Your character has to suffer throughout your story or it will be flat out boring…but how do you make his/her suffering unique? I’ve also heard that you should write about what you know, do you agree with this? And if you think that is good advice, do you have suggestions of how to stretch my knowledge and experiences to 1) sound unique/less boring and 2) not completely copy my life?

Lots of you flowed in to help.

Song4myKing: About pain. I think readers will care more about a character whose suffering seems in some way like their own, than about a character whose trouble is so far out there that they can’t really imagine it. If a character loses her best friend, it could strike a closer chord than if she is the only one in her town to survive a bombing. Not that you can’t use the bombing. But if you want the reader to care about the character’s loss and not just about her new plot challenges, you’ll have to narrow her grief down to one lost person at a time. Then make THAT person, and THAT pain become as real as possible.

Probably the key to making the character’s suffering unique is to make sure the people and things involved are 3D and unique. I talked about loss of a loved one as an example; that may be a common theme, but it becomes unique if the one gone and the one left are both well-rounded and their relationship was unique to them. Things like fears are the same way–if the character isn’t flat, and the fears have a believable basis, the suffering it causes will be just as interesting.

But whatever you do, don’t make the suffering random. Don’t kill the dog just to make the readers cry. They won’t. They’ll just be mad at you unless you have a very good reason. Think what in your story could naturally cause pain, then milk it for all it’s worth.

About writing what you know. I try not to write about things in the real world that I know nothing about. I probably will never write a story that has a public school as a major setting, because the school I went to was a very small church school. But I might sometime write about a homeschooler even though I was never homeschooled. I can more easily imagine what it would be like, because several of my siblings homeschooled for a year or two, and so did a number of my friends.

But notice I said “real world.” In the real world, someone will call your bluff if you really didn’t know what you were talking about. But in a made-up world, you are the creator, and you have the opportunity to get to know your world better than anyone else knows it.

And don’t forget that you CAN stretch your knowledge and experiences, even turning them into something a little different. I can’t really wrap my mind around the idea of losing my parents, but I did write a story that included that. I remembered the pain of losing my grandfather, and I put that pain into the story.

Christie V Powell: Well, suffering is tied to both fear and pain, so what does your character fear? What hurts them? That’ll be different for different people. Put me on a crowded dance floor with music so loud it hurts your ears–to some, that’s fun, but to me it would be suffering. I was watching a movie recently where a baby was rushed to the hospital. Everyone else enjoyed it, but I have experiences that made watching it painful. So experience will color the suffering too.

Real people are more complex than characters. Even if you were writing a memoir, your character self would not be a carbon copy. In some ways, all of your characters are based off of you and things you’ve experienced. My character Keita Sage is an introvert like me, but I also identify with antagonist Donovan’s desire take control and simplify government. Some of my real-life experiences got twisted into fiction: I once euthanized a baby chick that was born with fatal problems. It was a shocking, traumatizing experience. I twisted it into my first book, when Keita charges into battle and accidentally kills someone. In the final chapter, she discusses her complicated feelings about a gray character who did terrible things, yet she still cares for him as a person. It came straight from my feelings about one of my good friends from high school being arrested. You’re a unique human being. You’ve had different experiences than everyone else. That will come through.

In high fantasy, the whole world might be at stake. However, I just read and loved “The Losers Club” by Andrew Clements, and the only thing at stake is the main character’s summer vacation and maybe his friendship with a girl. It’s based on a realistic 6th grade bookworm. His character wasn’t really unique–he reminded me a lot of myself.

Maggie R.: So then, do you think that I can still get the reader to feel sad if it’s like ten people who die? Is it too many people do you think? Maybe I could give instances where they are each given a personality. What do you think?

Herolass: It depends on who the people are who die and how they die. If ten unnamed soldiers die in a battle I will not be too sad, but if those soldiers are all friends who died to save someone (e.g. the MC or another important character), I will be very sad.

Raina: I once heard somebody say that when writing tragedy, you should focus on the small things. Instead of writing about the horrors of war, write about a child’s burnt socks lying by the side of the road. If you want a good example, watch Les Miserables. A dozen people dying violently in a battle isn’t nearly as sad as the scene where Fantine gets arrested. (For me, at least.)

Also, I tend to find that tragedy/death feels sadder when the reader/story has some “quiet time” for it to really sink in, instead of a big action scene where the reader’s (and characters’) adrenaline is probably rushing. If you look at Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat beat sheet, the ALL IS LOST moment is usually a big dramatic (and action-packed if you’re in one of the more action-oriented genres) scene where something major happens, while the DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL moment is more internal conflict, where there’s not necessarily a lot going on outside but the MC is struggling inside.

Song4myKing; They might not all need to be named, and have personality shown, but if a few of them are in some poignant way, we’ll get it. We’ll understand that they were all people, not just pawns.

Wow! You guys are fabulous! I agree with everything!

As I’m thinking about this, I’m guessing that we can even make readers care about aggregates of lives lost–though I’ve never attempted it. I think the burnt socks at the side of the road is super effective, but we can also be cerebral about death statistics. One of the reasons, I think, that people continue to care about the Holocaust is the sheer enormity of Jewish deaths: six million. Statistics have power. We can compare the death toll to other death tolls. I haven’t done this, so I’m making up statistics: Jewish deaths in the Holocaust compared to deaths in our Civil War, compared to deaths from cholera, compared to deaths from malnutrition. (I don’t know how any of these would come out.) We might look at innovations by population and speculate how many advances all of humanity was deprived of by the losses. In real life, I have thought along these lines. Naturally, in our fiction, we would stack the deck–make comparisons that point up the magnitude of the tragedy. And then, to bring it all home, we can show the effects of realizing the seriousness of the event on our beloved MC.

Suppose our MC’s tribe loses a battle with the gnomes of Mount Pothinay, and only three out of a thousand soldiers survive. Our MC reacts with shock and deep depression. She thinks of the impact on the tribe going forward. She listens in on the survivors’ descriptions of the debacle. They supply the detail that everyone above talked about. We may not know any of these characters well–either the dead or the living–but their stories will affect our MC and through her, our readers.

Underlying all this, of course, is emotion. We have to connect the deaths of the few or the many with a feeling response. If we set it up right, we can do it. Writers have super powers!

On to writing what we know or what we didn’t (past tense) know. As I’ve said here, my WIP is a historical novel about the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492. I knew little when I started. Many learned tomes later, I’m, if not an expert, at least a knowledgeable amateur, and, finally, I’m starting to feel comfortable moving around in this long-ago world, which may be more different from our own than any of the fantasy universes I’ve created, not withstanding dragons, fairies, and elves. For example, cities had their own fueros, charters of rights granted by the monarch. But the king (and occasionally the queen) could–and did–change his mind any old time. If a subject didn’t like something, he could appeal to the king, and the king might act in his favor. But when another objection came along, he might reverse himself. A subject could depend on nothing! For most of the medieval period, the Jews had their own courts, but if a Jew was unhappy about a judgment, he could move on to the Christian courts and hope for a better outcome. I’ve never thought about introducing such chaos–but I might in a future fantasy, because, in addition to writing what we know, we can write what we’ve learned.

My book, The Wish, is set in the eighth grade. When I wrote it, junior high (no middle schools then) was decades in the past, and, due to a special program in New York City at the time, I skipped eighth grade. So I spent a day with an eighth grade class and talked to the kids. When I wrote The Two Princesses of Bamarre, I needed the help of my shy friends to get Addie right, since I’m an extrovert–but being an extrovert didn’t stop me from writing her.

We may have to step outside ourselves to write what we don’t know, but plenty of resources are available. For this historical novel, in addition to reading academic books, I’ve googled countless things. I had a long phone conversation about boats with an expert at the South Street Seaport in New York City. I’ve reached out to scholars specializing in the Middle Ages on the Iberian Peninsula. No one has been unwilling to help.

(For any of you who are using Wikipedia for research, I’ve found the references at the bottom of the article to be enormously helpful. Some link to other online resources and some to books that go into the topic, whatever it is, in geeky depth.)

One of the charms of writing what we don’t know is that we build bridges to what we do. In the case of the expulsion of the Jews, not all the discoveries have been happy. Prejudice then and prejudice now, if not exactly the same, resemble each other.

I encourage writers to write what we don’t know. We get bigger.

And I don’t want you readers of this blog to limit your ambitions. Whatever you want to do in your writing, I say, go for it!

In the case of writing about the late fifteenth century, I can’t get it entirely right, and not merely because records are spotty. For one thing, I don’t have twenty years for this one book, the time it would take to truly know the period. For another, the way events unfolded then has convinced me that people at the time were in some respects fundamentally different from twenty-first century humanity: the sense of self was less individuated; the stories folks tell themselves about their lives has changed; and the relation of self to society has shifted. I’m hoping to write characters who aren’t exactly like us, just dressed up in gowns or doublets and hose. But if I manage to represent them as they would recognize themselves, they may not be comprehensible to modern readers. I’m looking for a middle ground. We can’t entirely get away from what we know.

This extends to all kinds of writing. My shy Addie is unlikely to reflect everyone’s experiences of being shy. Whether we write what we know or what we learn, our words won’t precisely match what our readers know. This is all to the good. How dull it would be otherwise!

Here are three prompts:

∙ Take the defeat against the gnomes of Mount Pothinay when only three out of a thousand survive. 997 people have been killed. Resist the urge to make any of them individuals. Write a scene, and make the reader sad.

∙ Research a historical defeat. Make yourself care, and then, using your research, write a scene and make the reader care. For this, Wikipedia and Google are your friends, but you can also interview people you know who may be veterans or may have been in any kind of physical fight.

∙ Take a tall tale or a myth about an out-size individual. Make that person believable. Adapt the story. Write it all or a scene.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Idea-ology

On June 4, 2018, Writeforfun wrote, I’m desperate! How do you come up with new book ideas?

I accidentally killed my computer four weeks ago and lost all of my files…and hadn’t backed them up for the past two years (yes, I know, you’re supposed to back your computer up way more often than that, but I’m a chronic procrastinator, so I never got around to it). I lost everything I’ve written for the past two years, which includes two novels I had halfway finished and the two previous novels that I was working on revising. I can’t stand the thought of starting over on that stuff, at least not for a good long while, but I’m dying to start writing again.

I’m trying to think of a fresh new idea to move onto, but coming up with an idea that I can really get into is proving impossible. I have dozens and dozens of story ideas that I’ve come up with over time, but only a few have piqued my interest in just the right ways to get me obsessed enough with them to write them (that’s pretty much the only way I can write something – if it intrigues me in just the right way that I can’t stop thinking about it and I crave a chances to sit down and write more of it!).

Right now I have one idea that has really sparked my interest, but, alas, it is a fanfiction, spawned off a backstory that an author never wrote; I love it, but I can’t stand writing fanfiction and I can’t figure out a way to convert it into something original – I’m afraid it wouldn’t work in any other world.

Anyway, I was just wondering if anyone has any ideas for how to come up with…ideas?

HeroLass wrote back, One of the ways I come up with ideas is to go for a walk, nature inspires me and when I walk I let my mind wander.

Another way is to look at everyday objects and go what if…? (‘What if’ solves many of my lack of idea problems.)

And Melissa Mead wrote, Can you tease out the core of what you love about the fanfiction, change everything else, and write that?

There is actually a book called What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter (high school and up, I think), which is a great resource for idea generation. So that’s one source we can all turn to.

I am backed up in multiple ways, and, except for my little memory chip, all of them are managed by my techie husband. If not for him, I’m sure I would be or would have been in Writeforfun’s boat more than once. I’m very sorry this happened to you!

I’m with HeroLass on the usefulness of activities that let our minds wander. Walks, showers, repetitive and mindless activities can be potent sources of ideas. In my experience these work best if they’re preceded by intense though unsuccessful brain cudgeling. After that kind of effort–which may include free-writing, list-making, talking obsessively about the problem with anyone who will listen–the subconscious is primed and, when allowed to roam free, will produce results. This works for major ideas for entire projects and for smaller ones when we get stuck in our WIP.

When I’m on an idea hunt, I often think about the problem just before I go to sleep, and–sometimes–I wake up with the answer. This is another form of the relaxation technique above. It presupposes, as I believe, that our brains really do have answers. The difficulty is finding opening the lock. Sleep is often the key.

It can be useful to keep a pad by the bed and write down our dreams, which otherwise are likely to slip away. Dreams are surreal and unexpected. We can mull them over, write notes about them and lists about where we might take them.

I agree with Melissa Mead about changing the fanfic enough to make it entirely your own. Lists may come in handy here. We can list the elements of the world that seem unique, that we can’t do without–and then list ways we can do without them. We can list the elements of our idea that we love and then list ways to use them in a new, non-derivative story.

One of my chief worries in the year that preceded the publication of Ella Enchanted was that everyone would notice how derivative the book was, how I had stuffed it with all the elements of what I loved about many of the books I’d read. No one ever made that accusation. We may not be copying someone else even when we think we are.

We can list our obsessions. What do we care about? What has been an interest through our entire life? For each item on our list, we can start a new list of ways to use that interest in a story. For example, suppose we’re fascinated by trees. What can we do with that? Dryads? The secret lives of roots?

I’m finally writing about the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, a subject I’ve been curious about for years. I keep finding books (unread until now) about the subject on my bookshelves. My subconscious was preparing me. I bet yours is, too.

As most of you know, fairy tales are a major source of inspiration for me, but not all of them open to me quickly. There are several on the back burner that I hope to get to eventually: “Rumpelstiltskin,” “East of the Sun, West of the Moon,” “Aladdin,” to name a few. When I think of something that may, finally, allow me to move into actual writing, I type it into my ideas page for that story.

And I keep a running list of ideas that I may be able to work with in the future. I’ll probably never get to many of them, because new ones continue to come along, but when I’m preparing to start a new project I always go back to my list. I’d encourage everyone to keep such a list, and, if we’re in danger of losing it in a computer disaster, print it out periodically or keep it longhand in a notebook.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Pick a book you’ve loved that was published in the last few years, definitely still copy protected, and use it as the basis for a list of ideas you can spin off to make your own original story. Pick one and start writing.

∙ The following is one of my dreams, which I put in a poem. I offer it to you to change any way you like if it seems to have story possibilities: I knew that if I ate the shrimp I would turn transparent. I didn’t serve myself any, but they were on my plate anyway. That’s all I remembered when I woke up. Do I eat the shrimp? Who wants me to be transparent? Is being transparent the same as being invisible?

∙ The genies in Aladdin interest me. How do they grant wishes? Where does their power come from? What’s their relationship with the evil magician? Write a list of genie story possibilities. If one grabs you, write the story.

Have fun, and save what you write!

The Red Pencil

On May 26, 2018, Bethany Meyer wrote, What is the best editing process? What steps do you do in what order from beginning to end in the process?

Also, how does one rewrite a part of the story without feeling like you’re not changing anything/the story has gone flat/wanting to pull your hair out?

Christie V Powell wrote back, After I finish the rough draft, I’ll put it aside for a month or two. Then I’ll read it over and make a list of all the scenes. I reorder them into chapters and figure out what scenes are still missing–for my current WIP, I’m using KM Weiland’s story structure to get the big picture–character arcs, theme, and plot–in the right places. Then I go through and get the manuscript to match the new outline. After that I’ll get feedback from beta readers, and go through it several more times, checking for character, dialogue, prose, grammar mistakes, etc. Then I’ll order a physical copy from staples and go over that to see what I missed.

I definitely do feel that I am changing things–but in a good way. The rough draft helped me to discover the themes and overall feel of the story, and then my editing will help me bring to light what I’ve discovered. For instance, I was half-way through the rough draft when I realized that the relationship between two specific characters was going to be a major focus. In editing, I went back and changed the order and added scenes so that this relationship is a bigger part of the story. I figured out that one of the themes is the dangers of extremism verses the importance of communication, so I worked in two different antagonists, each representing opposite extremes.

Wow! Christie V Powell is organized! That sounds like a great approach to revision.

Just saying, Bethany Meyer, my hair is thin to begin with, and I feel lucky to have any left!

But I’m less likely to tear mine out in revision, my favorite part of the process, than in writing my first draft, my least favorite part.

It may be helpful for everyone to think about revision as I do: the hardest work is over; I have an entire story–beginning, middle, and end; all I have to do now is make it better.

I’m such a slow writer that when I finish the first draft of a novel, I’ve pretty much forgotten the beginning, so I have to wait only a few days before I can dive back in. But I agree with Christie V Powell that at least some time has to go by. We need that time to be able to see what’s going on in an objective way, not to feel defensive about every word and every scene that we labored to produce.

The feeling that the story has gone flat may come from not waiting long enough before going back into it. Immediately after finishing we are at our most vulnerable to a doubt attack.

Every writer works differently, and I’m not as organized as Christie V Powell, so I just jump back in, and I tend to do everything at once as I go through: character development, dialogue, setting, grammar, word choice, pacing. For me: pacing, pacing, pacing.

As I’m writing my first draft, I’m often aware of aspects that aren’t working well that I will need to address in revision, so I make a note at the very top of my manuscript. For example, in my WIP, the relationship between my MC and her grandfather is super important, but I don’t think I’ve revealed it enough, and I haven’t developed the grandfather’s personality fully. So I have a note about that at the top of page 1.

Or, to take another example, at the beginning of the WIP, I made my MC a math genius. As I kept writing, I had to conclude that my own grasp of math wasn’t good enough for me to represent hers, and I confess I’m not eager to educate myself sufficiently to keep up with her (along with all the research on fifteenth century Spain). So, there’s another note at the top to tone down the math. I’m worried, though, that I may find that I can’t do without it. If that’s the case, I’ll hit the books.

Some of my notes are about tiny things that will take only a few moments. At one point I need my MC to be wearing, as usual, a lot of jewelry, but I haven’t shown her wearing jewelry at all. I have to drop a mention or two–there’s a note about that.

Also, I note at the top of the manuscripts words I suspect myself of overusing.

So on the happy day, soon after the even happier day when I typed The End, I dive back in. As I go along, I look back occasionally at my list at the top to refresh my memory and make sure I’m catching everything.

But the first thing I do is save my first draft and rename the revision. That way, if I mess up the revision, I still have the original to go back to. This gives me the confidence to move forward. Every time I start a new round of revision, I do the same.

And other things may crop up as well. If they do, I’ll add them to my list at the top, to pick up as I continue, or to fix in my second revision. I’ll also delete notes as I make the repairs.

A first revision is never enough for me. I go through the manuscript one or two or three more times before I send it to my editor, and then, naturally, I revise again and again based on her feedback.

For me it’s a process of both amplifying and cutting. I often find that I’ve glossed over moments that need more, so I go deeper.

In other places, I’ve nattered on endlessly, and then the (virtual) scissors come out. I cut a lot! Always. Usually over a hundred pages, taken in snips from here and there. Sometimes it hurts, and that’s where my Extras document comes in. When I cut something, I copy it into Extras. I know I’ve saved my original draft, but what I’ve just cut may not be in that draft, and anyway I may find it more easily in Extras if I need it, which sometimes (rarely) I do.

I pay a lot of attention in every draft to the minutiae of grammar, sentence structure, word repetition, word choice. Every sentence in a paragraph shouldn’t start with the same word. A string of paragraphs also shouldn’t start with the same word. Sentence after sentence shouldn’t be two clauses connected by and or but. I need to vary my verbs. And so on. Even though this may not seem as important as plot and character, the minutiae determine the kind of read we provide the reader, and we want it to be smooth.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Your MC gets do-overs. When she makes mistakes she can travel back in time and fix them. What could go wrong? Make the fixes go south, causing more fixes in a downward cycle. Write a scene or the whole story.

∙ Jacob Grimm writes the stories and Wilhelm revises them (I’m making this up). But, when it come to “Snow White,” Jacob feels that Wilhelm has murdered his creation. Write the story of their struggle and the way the fairy tale evolves.

∙ Your MC is the daughter in a family that has carried on a feud with another family for six generations. She wants the feud to end and takes on the job of mediator. No one cooperates. Write the story of her efforts to make peace. You decide if she succeeds or fails.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Stepping It Up

This is going to be an unusual post. On March 28, 2018, Carley Anne wrote, There’s a part of my manuscript that’s been bothering me: much of the drive for my story (though not all), is that there’s a supposed legend which gives a date for when certain things will be ‘ended.’ Some characters believe in the legend, others do not; we don’t know the truth until the end of the story–but whether the legend is real or no, my antagonist believes it, so therefore, everyone has no choice but to act. How do I make a legend believable? Without smoke and mirrors (and some old, wise, stereotypical cloaked guy rasping the legend’s words through the darkness, if you know what I mean). There are supernatural beings in my fictional world, and they are the first to hear of said legend, but I’ve been looking for ways to reveal bits and pieces to the readers, so that it’s believable, and straightforward. As far as legends go.

You responded so well and thoroughly that I have little to add, so I’m going to reprise the responses, put in a few thoughts of my own, and move on the a second question.

Angie: Maybe you could show signs that the legend could be true by having certain aspects of it line up with real-life events? Events that could be explained away, but also seem to carry the weight of prophecy to those who believe, i.e. a storm or an eclipse bringing darkness, or a kingdom whose rulers and heirs cannot survive past a certain age (perhaps due to a hereditary disease, OR, due to a curse/legend that seems to be coming to pass) or something to that effect. Something like this could make a legend seem real enough to sway many people into believing it.

Raina: Ditto what Angie said about having certain aspects match up with real events. If people think “look the prophecy is right about x and y, it’s probably going to be right about z too,” they’ll probably believe it. In addition, you could also make the terms either general enough or metaphorical enough that anything could be interpreted as fulfilling it. For example, if a prophecy says something like “a dragon shall sit on the throne,” it could mean a literal dragon (like in Terry Pratchett’s book GUARDS! GUARDS!), a monarch whose house sigil is a dragon (like the Targaryans in Game of Thrones), somebody with a draconian personality, or just somebody named “Dragon”. I think any of these explanations would seem logical, especially if people are thinking about it after it occurs. There’s something in psychology called Hindsight Bias (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hindsight_bias) in which people tend to see past events as predictable, despite no evidence. I think that effect would be especially strong in the context of a prophecy, and it wouldn’t take a lot to make people go “yep, the prophecy definitely predicted that.”

Also, does your antagonist have any particular reason for believing the prophecy? If they believe it because they want it to be true, they might also be affected by confirmation bias (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Confirmation_bias) and perceive every little thing as a sign of the prophecy. I think as long as your characters truly believe in the prophecy and act accordingly, your reader will too. You could reveal bits of the prophecy to the reader by having some characters mention bits and pieces of the prophecy (like: “oh, hey, a red sun rises, just like it said in the legend) and maybe even discussing/arguing about it.

Bethany: The legend could give some precursor proof (you know, things the legend says will happen before the rest of it starts), such as a lightning storm taking out a major building or the royal baby dying, that could all be happening. That would give the readers that little sneaking fear of ‘is this actually going to happen?’ Or a few of the smaller things the legend says will end could actually get ended. Then the legend would seem to be starting to come true, if any of this makes sense to you.

My turn: We might add weight to the legend through corroborating evidence, as often happens when scientific ideas become confirmed, as in physics, when particles are observed to behave in a way that bears out a new theory. In our story, a scroll might be discovered that revels the credible origins of the legend. Or an ancient civilization might be excavated. Their urns are decorated with scenes from the legend.

Or the belief of a respected character can give weight to the legend. If Gandalf, for example, believes it, this reader (me) would be sure it must be true.

Of course, we have to keep our eye on the truth that only we know: the factual or fictitious nature of the legend. We want to be sure that we have the balance right between belief and doubt in the minds of our characters and our readers, because we want the eventual reveal to work.

On to the next question. If anyone responded to this one, I missed it, and I apologize.

On April 12, 2018, Enchanted wrote: I’m in the middle of writing a trilogy (eek!) and I’m a little stumped. The story is based on “Snow White,” except it involves vampires. Basically, Snow White starts off as a pampered princess (her father spoils her) and she has a best friend, this young prince from the neighboring kingdom who has slowly become…more than a friend. He visits her during the summer but lives in his own country most of the time, so they mostly communicate by letter. Snow White’s father brings home his new wife; aforementioned evil stepmother murders him, and Snow White gets framed for it. She escapes prison, but the evil queen shuts down all the roads out of the country, so the only way to get out is through a forest full of vampires. The vampires catch her, but they’re really running this resistance movement against the queen, so they want to help Snow White. One of the vampires is really young and handsome, and Snow White starts falling in love with him (by the end of the trilogy, she has to choose either her best friend or the hot vampire–no spoilers!). Eventually, the evil queen figures out she’s hiding in the forest and sends some bad guys to kill Snow White. One of the men stabs her, but the vampires bite her back to life and then she becomes one of them. Then they set off for the castle where her best friend lives, because they need his army to overthrow the queen. That’s the end of Book 1.

My problem is with the pacing; the middle of the story slouches for me (I think Gail calls this the “sagging middle”). Because for several chapters, they’re holed up in a cottage in the woods. Of course there’s all this romance going on with Snow White and the handsome vampire, but I feel like there’s not enough meat to the middle of the story and not enough motivation for them to just sit around in this cottage when there’s an urgent need to get to the other country. And I need time to pass somehow, because there has to be enough time for them to fall in love and also some crazy stuff needs to happen in the capital with the evil queen while they’re gone.

Any suggestions would be appreciated! (I know, it’s a tricky one!)

I’ve been thinking about this in my own WIP, my historical novel about the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492. You’d think it would be all action and danger, but I’m including some of the lead-up to the expulsion, which historically took at least a hundred years, though I’m covering only the final nine. For most of that time, my MC, Cima, is safe. Terrible things are happening, but she’s protected by her prominent, wealthy Jewish family. I often found myself struggling to stay awake. To wake myself up, I listed whatever I could think of that makes trouble for Cima. You can do the same. Here’s what I mean:

∙ I’ve introduced family conflict in the form of a hysterical mother and an evil brother. Cima hates discord, and she suffers. That livens things up! Discord is an item on my list. Applying this to Enchanted’s story, is all sweetness and light among the vampires in the cottage? If not, how do their problems affect Snow White? Can she be in actual danger? Even when they leave the cottage the negative emotions can bubble up when the plot has to slow down.

∙ Cima loves children and, from the beginning of the book when she’s seven, what she wants most is to be a mother someday. This is another item on my list. I keep threatening Cima’s most cherished desire. For example, the evil brother reveals what her horoscope said when she was born, and the signs were not auspicious for motherhood. I’m not sure what Snow White wants (she can want more than one thing), but whatever it is might be can be brought to the fore and made unlikely.

∙ Jews during this period were sometimes baptized by force, though Church policy didn’t approve. Once baptized, even forcibly, people weren’t allowed to go back to the old religion. Cima fears baptism, and I bring this fear in sometimes when my story slows. So what does Snow White fear, and what does she want? Can that fear and that desire be awakened in the cottage?

∙ Cima is her grandfather’s favorite, which also causes conflict. Other family members are jealous, and he’s demanding. For Enchanted, can the romance create stress in the cottage? Might the romance itself get bumpy sometimes?

The overarching strategy is to look around at our plot and our characters to find threads we can exploit when the going gets tedious. We can give our MC personality buttons that go off when pushed. Ditto for other characters. We can give her desires that can be frustrated during quiet times as well as during big action scenes.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Your characters are trapped in a mine. This can be a reality-based mine or a fantasy one, possibly created by dwarves. For the moment, they’re safe, and you want them to stay that way for long enough to introduce them all, and you want the reader to stay awake. Using the strategies above, or any others that you think of, write this stuck part of the story. If you like, keep going and write the whole thing.

∙ Your MC is on the road in a rock band. Keep things tense on the trip from New York City to Miami. Write the journey.

∙ Snow White (without vampires) is new to living with the dwarves. The evil queen hasn’t discovered where she is yet. Make the interval until she does tense, even though the dwarves mean her well.

Have fun, and save what you write!

The On-Again-Off-Again Muse or How I Keep Writing

On March 9, 2018, Writeforfun wrote, A few years ago, by the time I was into my second book, I got to the point where I was writing at least three hours, every single day (which seems like a LOT to me!). I look back and don’t know how I was doing it! Nowadays I just don’t feel nearly as inspired or motivated. Lately I’ve been writing a few words every couple weeks, if not months. It’s sad, I enjoyed it when I was writing more, but the inspiration just isn’t coming like that any more.

I noted that this wasn’t a question, but I added it to my list anyway, because I think getting down to writing is something lots of us struggle with.

Three hours does seem like a lot to me. Great while it lasted. And maybe it’s returned by now.

Let me start with my most pessimistic response and move upward. Kids who love to write don’t always continue to write stories. Many young people who love to write are artistic overall and wind up swearing their allegiance to another art form, like painting or playing the flute. The writing fades, often painlessly. Some adults and other young people who love to write may become discouraged by rejection or criticism, and their enthusiasm wanes. This probably isn’t painless.

On a subconscious level, I think, some bump up against how fiendishly hard writing is and don’t find it in themselves to keep going. They allow themselves to be distracted by other tasks that seem more pressing. The budding story is visited less and less often.

A friend once pointed something out to me that I’d never considered: There are two kinds of art. One is interpretive, like playing the piano from sheet music, and the other is originating, like writing a story or composing music. When we write a story, we do have tools: our training, experience, every book we’ve ever read. But the page is blank and we have to make it all up. In my opinion, that’s much harder–not that interpretation is easy!

I don’t mean that leaving writing means we won’t ever come back. Life may teach us to cope with criticism and rejection. Or we may reread an old story fragment, love it as we couldn’t when it was newly minted, and be filled with fresh ideas. The capricious muse may pay us a visit and decide to stay.

And, usually, people who stop writing fiction are still skilled writers. They can draft an academic paper, an email, even a text message with more ease and flair than the average person. This stands them in good stead forever.

Some writers write only when they feel inspired. Some of them have careers as writers. Many of them, when inspiration comes, dive in and don’t surface until the magic is spent, often when a work is complete. Eating and sleeping have to wait. If you and Writeforfun fall into this category, I wouldn’t worry about a drought. The rain will come.

I don’t fall into the inspirational group, so I have to work at making myself write. I use several strategies that you on the blog can adapt, if you don’t use them already.

∙ Some writers have a daily page goal, which may work for you. The goal can be one paragraph or one page or five pages, whatever you decide. I don’t do it that way, or I’d face a lot of twenty-four hour stretches at my laptop and still fail. Instead, I have a time goal: two-and-a-quarter hours or more per writing day. (Some days I’m doing other things, like visiting friends.) I keep track of my times, starting at the beginning of the day. Whenever I stop, like to put dishes in the dishwasher or read an irresistible email, I write down the stop time and the restart time. If I reach my goal and the day isn’t over, I keep writing. As I go, I keep a running tally of the total.

∙ On days when, for no good reason, I don’t meet my goal, usually because I allowed myself to be distracted, I forgive myself. Always. Forgiveness guaranteed. Because if I don’t, it’s much harder to start the next day. This is a super important part of the process that keeps me writing–forgiveness. I urge you to adopt it, too.

∙ I ignore my brain when it tells me that what I’m writing stinks. This is also super important. Nothing can paralyze my fingers as effectively as a negative voice in my mind. I have to brush the voice aside or I can’t go on. But I encourage myself to be aware of specific problems in my story. Right now, in my WIP about the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, I sometimes get so caught up in events that I forget their impact on my MC, the person my readers will care about. As a result, the tension suffers. At the top of my manuscript, I note this as something to think about in revision  and keep going. I keep reminding myself that what I have so far is only the first draft and that I love to revise.

∙ I imagine an approving reader. If this story is something I think my editor will really go for, it’s her. At other times it may be the writers in my poetry critique group, who are young enough to have grown up on my fiction. Sometimes it’s the child reader I used to be. Anyone or anything–a teddy bear–will do. The approving reader stokes my enthusiasm and generates new ideas to please her.

∙ By now I can comfort myself with the knowledge that I will finish my story, unless some real-life disaster strikes. I’ve made my way through the toughest of books (Stolen Magic) and gotten to The End. If you don’t have a lot of experience, remember that experience is what you’re building. Every story is evidence that you can hang in there. And every story that you don’t finish is just a stop on the way toward finishing.

∙ And there are Notes and Lists, which I’ve talked about in many posts to help me get to the end. Both are where I work out the knots in my story. In Notes and Lists, the stakes are low, really nothing. No one will see them. I can write anything! I can shake out my brain and see what emerges.

Just saying, the stakes are truly low in writing in general. If, for once, I fail to finish a story, no one will die. I can start another. I can congratulate myself on not putting more time into a project that just won’t work.

These are the strategies that keep me writing. And here are three prompts:

∙ Your MC is called a Creator. She makes wire figures, touches them with her left pinky, and they become anatomically correct foot-tall people. She types out three qualities that each of her creations will have and places the paper with the qualities on their tongue. As soon as they close their mouths, the paper dissolves and they come to life, incorporating the qualities. Have your MC create three such characters. Put them in a story along with their Creator, who meddles, just as we meddle in the lives of our characters.

∙ For possibly a dark story, imagine that the evil queen in “Snow White” has a child of her own–son or daughter, you decide–put the two in a story with or without Snow White. What kind of parent will she be? What will happen?

∙ “Pinocchio” is about creator, creation, and lying, which is what writers do. Imagine that Pinocchio wants desperately to be a real boy and he realizes that real boyness means having the power to lie. He won’t be real unless he can lie. Retell the story with that element.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Unspoken

On February 19, 2018, Nichole wrote, I want to know what suggestions you might give for the parts of writing that I suppose I would call “background description.” See, I’m a writer who loves dialogue –I love to know what people choose to say and what people say in return. My problem, though, lies with describing what is going on in-between the dialogue.

Allow me to give an example from one of your books I grew-up with: Ever.

“You never crawled,” Aunt Fedo says.

Merem corrects her. “Once or twice you crawled.”

Aunt Fedo ignores the correction. “You were too eager to walk and dance.”

“And climb!” Merem says. She pats Kezi’s hand.

Senat, Merem, and Aunt Fedo laugh.

“Nothing was safe from you,” Senat says, breaking off a section of bread for her.

In this example, using “say” and “said” are the first tools in breaking up straight dialogue as it tells who said it. But, what about the rest? The –as I put it- “background description”- correcting of facts, patting of Kezi’s hand, laughter, and Senat breaking off the section of bread. How would you suggest I write “background description” to break up dialogue?

Christie V Powell wrote back, I think that being able to see the whole thing in your mind would help you nail those details. In writing dialogue, you’re often focused on the words the characters are saying, but you might miss out on everything else going on: real life doesn’t stop when people have a conversation. Visualizing the setting might help.

Also, those little descriptions are a great way to build subtext. Senat handing her bread shows that he’s caring for her. Merem patting a hand is a gesture that shows that she’s an older woman, probably family, showing fondness and possibly a bit of teasing. There is a ton of subtext going on–reading between the lines, if you will. Not everyone will pick up on it, but it makes the story richer.

Here’s a section I’m working on right now (still in progress).

—He nodded slowly, but his guarded expression cleared when he saw her bandaged arm. “Hurt during capture?” he asked. Despite his husky accent, she easily picked out his words.

“No. That tiny griffin…”

“Ah.”

He unwrapped the bandage with fingers scratchy with callouses, but gentle. The wound began to bleed again, but he pressed one hand over it. The warmth grew to heat, higher and higher, but a second before it grew painful he let go. The cut had vanished completely. Mira thought of the Spektrit visitor who had fixed her limp on the beach.

“It brought me to you on purpose. For the healing.”

“He,” the Spectrit corrected. “That griffin is a he. I’m Arvid, Keeper.” He tapped his black collar. “Keepers herd, sometimes heal. You’re a minder. General labor. Sometimes pets…”

She shot the griffin a suspicious look.

I’m with Christie V Powell. The description lets the reader’s senses enter the story to see, hear, smell, and feel what’s going on. And description also allows us to move the plot along with action. In her sample, Christie V Powell even manages to drop in the experience of Spektrit magic or power.

I was just thinking about this in my own WIP. I started a bit of dialogue when an older man, a duke, sits with a young woman and complains about his creaky knees, after he’s demonstrated their effect in the stiff way he sat. But following that introductory moment, the scene becomes disembodied, as I realized just before closing my laptop to get on the train, which I’m riding right now to New York City.

Either I can fix the scene as soon as I open the manuscript again, or I can fix it in revision, after I’ve got a completed first draft. If I decide to delay the repair, I’ll make a note at the top of the first page, along with a string of other instructions to self, to watch out for disembodied dialogue.

So the first step is self-awareness, which Nichole has mastered.

The second step is action. We look at our scene to see what’s missing and what we can use.

In the case of my WIP, my MC, Cima, is embroidering a pillow cushion when the duke approaches her. He’s much higher in rank than she is, but I forgot to make her put aside her embroidery, which she certainly would do–or be rude, which might be useful in a different situation from the one I’m writing. When I revise, I’ll do something with the embroidery.

And he’s a guest! But she doesn’t offer him food! Getting him food, or even starting to stand up if he doesn’t want any, would introduce action.

Let’s go back to Nichole’s quote from Ever. I haven’t looked at the context and I don’t remember what went before or after, but I noticed just now that I left out thoughts and emotions. If I remember right, this scene isn’t from Kezi’s POV, but the POV character would notice how much her family loves her. I hope his reaction came in at some point!

Thoughts and emotions can come only from the POV character or from an omniscient narrator, but there’s always one of those around. The charming thing about thoughts, if we love writing dialogue, is that thoughts are like speech, and yet they do break up the dialogue.

When we want to add description, we start by examining what we have, and we ask questions:

Where are the characters?

What are they doing?

What is the POV character thinking and feeling?

Let’s take the where. Say the characters are having a picnic. What’s the weather? If the wind is blowing, is it blowing away the napkins and paper plates? Do things have to be weighted down with other things? Is there an ant parade? Mosquitoes?  Natural beauty? Who else is around?

If it’s a picnic, eating is probably going on. Who’s a neat eater? Who has mustard on his chin? Who talks with her mouth full? Who serves everybody else?

All of our choices of detail will be guided by our plot and our characters and, especially when we’re near the beginning, what appeals to us.

Here are three prompts:

∙ An argument is great for trying this out. Mariel is furious with Christopher for giving away a secret. Christopher is angry, too. He had a good reason for breaking the confidence. Write the scene, breaking up the dialogue with description. Think about body language and how loud each one gets. Consider the props they can use, like a book slammed down on a desk. Think about where they are and how the environment can enter in.

∙ Two spies have to exchange secret information. Problem is, they’re at a castle ball. There’s no chance for privacy. They keep trying to communicate, but their conversation is broken into repeatedly. Write the scene.

∙ Write the picnic scene. Decide who’s there and what the occasion is. Bring in the elements I mention above and any others that come to you and sprinkle them in with the dialogue. For the fun of it, make something disastrous happen to end the picnic.

Have fun, and save what you write!

The Heart You Write From

Thank you, Melissa Mead, for the title of this blog post!

On February 15, 2018, Writeforfun wrote, I’ve been struggling with this for the past few weeks (actually, I’ve always struggled with it but only realized what I’ve been doing about two weeks ago!). Have you ever noticed your own personality flaws showing up too much in all of your characters?

The blog had lots to say.

Christie V Powell: I’m a little worried about that right now, too. I’ve recently branched out to two WIPs with different characters than my main series, and I worry about them being too much alike (all four girl names even end in -a).

One thing that I hope will help is their character arcs: each one is working on a different trait that drives the story. Keita struggles with motivation to make a difference, prejudice against another clan, and to give up her wants/needs for what is really best for her kingdom (different books in the series). Kenna from DreamRovers struggles with a desire to escape reality, while Norma tries to live her dreams but gets overwhelmed when she takes on too much responsibility. Mira from Mira’s Griffin struggles with over-independence. According to KM Wieland, character flaws are just symptoms of the Lie that they believe about the world, which the story will disprove. So Kenna’s Lie is that dreams are better than reality, and her flaws are not noticing when people need her, being absent-minded, giving up too quickly, and so on. Mira’s over-independence does sometimes make her not notice other people, but it has a different root.

I also gave them a few superficial things: Mira hates goats, while Norma loves them. Keita never wears shoes, while Mira loves her boots.

Melissa Mead: Not just the flaws! I have to be careful to make sure they’re not too much like me, period. And my male heroes tend to be a certain type. 

Back to Writeforfun: Interesting! I’m glad at least that it’s not just me! My problem, as I now realize, is that all of my characters – and even my favorite characters from movies and other books! – are all plagued by some deep-seated insecurity/self-consciousness (specifically, insecurity based in some unchangeable physical trait or condition that makes them different from everybody else). I can’t believe I never noticed how much I do this before! And yes, the embarrassing thing is that I realize now this is a direct reflection of myself. I’ve always been careful, of course, to make each character’s personality unique, with a variety of flaws and virtues (I’ve got a ditzy optimist and a stoic realist and everyone in between!), but invariably, they still end up with some deep-seated insecurity. It’s almost as though I can’t relate to them if they are completely comfortable with who they are. I just can’t figure out how to overcome this!

Back to Melissa Mead: That doesn’t sound like a problem to me. It just sounds like that’s the heart you write from. I realized recently that I do a similar thing. All my books so far are, on some level, about outcasts finding home.

On a related note, does anybody else have just plain odd STUFF that keeps turning up? For instance, in 3 totally different books, I have characters who eat mice, or at least threaten to. My characters tend to go hungry a lot, even though I never have, and there’s usually some sort of “city on a hill…”

Fascinating, the Lie about the world that the character believes and the story will disprove! Thinking back on my books, that paradigm doesn’t fit them all, but it sure fits some, and it’s another useful way to look at our plot and find our way through it. As an early prompt, try seeing the MC in your WIP as living a Lie that your story will disprove. Consider how you can use that notion.

I agree with Melissa Mead that much of these worries don’t seem like problems, and I love the idea that they’re the heart we write from. Many writers spend their careers spinning stories around a single problem; others take decades working through an issue before moving onto something else. Of my work, not only Ella Enchanted is about obedience. In one way or another, so are Ever, The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre, and even my picture book, Betsy Who Cried Wolf, is, too. What’s up with that?

Best not inquire! I mean that! Our subterranean lives power our stories. If we fish them up and turn them over and over in our hands, even gut them for the golden ring in their bellies, the gold is likely to lose its glitter.

Also, we can’t tell what readers will find in our stories. I may think I’m writing about obedience, and a reader may decide my theme is following your star.

I keep thinking of the sentimental saying, “Turn that frown upside down.” It could be said about me that I’m a worrier. I would say it! I hate how I worry about things large and small, in the near future and years off. A supportive friend, however, might turn my major personality disorder upside down and say that I anticipate, rather than worry, that I give myself time to plan. Nice friend!

My MCs are generally worriers, too, and for that, I’m grateful. Their worries help maintain the tension and make fine chapter endings when no cliffhangers are handy. The worries also remind me to include their thoughts, and they clue the reader into what to watch out for. Just as good, if my MC doesn’t see something coming, the reader probably won’t either, and I can deliver a fine surprise whammy.

Let’s apply this method to a deep-seated insecurity. How can it work for us? Well, for starters, it will put the reader on the character’s side, since not a few people on the planet feel deeply insecure about something. And, like worrying, it can heighten tension. The reader will be on the lookout for triggers for this beloved character’s insecurity, will think, Uh oh! Is this going to set her off?

What would my supportive friend say about a deep-seated insecurity? She’d say, “You’re self-aware, not blind to your imperfections.” My friend hates oblivious, self-satisfied people. Self-awareness can help a character overcome obstacles, including the internal ones. Self-aware people can suss out the insecurities in others, even the buried insecurity in a villain, and use them.

If we’re writers, our instincts are likely to be good about what makes story fodder–like an insecurity. Alas, we’re also people and maybe a tad self-critical, so we turn this advantage that nature gave us into a source of alarm.

When we’re aware that we’ve put our own characteristics into our fiction, we can muse about more than one way to use the attribute. Okay, we think, this character is insecure about his weak chin, so how can this insecurity work in our plot? We can make a list!

∙ He grows a beard. What can I do with a beard? As you know, I’m researching late medieval Spain, where Christians were clean-shaven and male Jews had to wear beards, so I could do something along those lines. His beard could identify him as a member of some group he doesn’t really belong to.

∙ His insecurity makes him sensitive to insecurities in others, and he has a protective streak, which gets him involved with all kinds of people, some wonderful, and some who take advantage of him.

∙ He way overestimates other people’s awareness of his chin, which leads him to overcompensate. (His Lie about the world!) He develops strategies to distract from himself, becomes charming, a great talker, a reliable friend, but he never feels truly seen–because he doesn’t let anyone truly see him. Our plot needs to get him out of his isolation.

Each of these has the same root: insecurity, but they all go in wildly different directions, and I’m sure you can think of more.

As for Melissa Mead’s characters’ mice-eating propensities–cool! However, once it’s noticed, options open up: badgers, baby bats, dust bunnies. Just so they’re eating, since they all seem to be starving, too! The city-on-the-hill seems another example of the heart one writes from.

I doubt that we can write characters that are entirely different from us, since they come from us and we have to be able to understand them. The triumph is that we manage to splinter ourselves and create multi-dimensional characters out of the fragments. People we know, people we read about, bits of characters in other books and TV and movies turn up in our stories, but they all have to go through our brains and our guts to come out fully realized on the page.

For three prompts, go with my weak-chin-insecurity plot directions and write a scene or a story based on one or two or all of them. And for a fourth, fifth, and sixth prompt, think of three more ways to use this insecurity, and put them in a story or stories.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Poetic Choices

On January 22, 2018, That One Writer wrote, One of the main character’s POV is in free verse. She has a backstory that is woven in closer to the end of the story, but it’s hard to write it in free verse. Should I change her POV to the “regular” form? I would hate to do that, because her personality comes out better in verse.

And I wrote back, I hope you stick with verse! You might like to read Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse and Make Lemonade and the other two books in the series by Virginia Euwer Wolff, all in free verse.

You do mean free verse rather than blank verse (iambic pentameter), right?

I am always delighted to talk poetry!

For any who don’t know, free verse is poetry that doesn’t have a regular rhyme scheme, meaning that the last word in each line doesn’t end with a word that rhymes with the last word in another line, in a repeating pattern. And free verse also doesn’t have regular meter, meaning that the stressed and unstressed syllables don’t come in a repeating pattern. Iambic meter, for example, goes like this: da DUM, da DUM, da DUM, and so on.

Shakespeare wrote mostly in iambs (a HORSE, a HORSE, my KINGdom FOR a HORSE). Most classical Western poets wrote in iambs. Free verse is relatively new. Dr. Seuss wrote mostly in anapests (da da DUM).

That One Writer didn’t answer my question, but, also for those who don’t know, blank verse is iambic and generally has five iambs, five da-DUMs per line. Writing–and even speaking–in iambs comes naturally to some people, who just seem to slide into it. The rest of us have to practice. A thesaurus is a big help, because it can often supply synonyms with the stresses we need.

Even in fiction written in prose, knowing about iambs is useful. They’re powerful. When we want a sentence or phrase to REALly PACK a PUNCH, iambs can help. The reader won’t notice, but the rhythm will support the meaning.

From That One Writer’s question, I’m not sure if her problem is with the poetry character’s backstory or with free verse itself, so let’s start with the backstory.

If it’s narrated in third person, I’m not sure if it needs to be in verse, or the verse can be brought in occasionally by the narrator as illustrating the character’s personality.

If the backstory is told by this MC herself, she can tell the reader in her poetic way that she’s going into memory, and the reader will get it. But if the back story needs a more definitive separation, it can be set apart from everything else with something as simple as italics or narrower margins. There are more devices we can use. She can tell the backstory in poems in her journal. The details can be revealed in prose in newspaper reports.
The backstory can be told by a different character, whose POV is in prose.

I like variety!

Back to free verse. Before I went to poetry school, I was uncertain about where to end my lines in free verse. Sometimes I still am, but now I have more knowledge to guide me.

Velocity is a big consideration in line endings. If I end a line with a word like the or of or or, the reader will race to the next line. If I end with a verb or a noun, the reader will pause for a blink. If the line ends with punctuation, the reader will pause longer. Many poets rarely end a line with the or words like it unless they have a reason. A strategy for line endings, then, is to think about speed.

In prose, the most important word in a sentence is generally the last one, as is (generally again) the last sentence in a book. Next in importance is the first word in a sentence or sentence in a book. The same is usually true in lines of poetry, but you get to decide. Some poets, like Sharon Olds (definitely high school and up), make the first word in a line the most important one. So importance is worth considering when we decide where to end a line.

However, I don’t think line endings are worth agonizing over. We end a line at the place that pleases us most, which may or may not change in revision, which is likely to change as we evolve as poets. I once read a regret by an established poet who lamented that he would have written a lot more poems in his career if he hadn’t worried so much about line endings!

We get to decide how we want the poem to appear on the page, which will affect our line endings. Do we want short lines or long or varied? Generally, whatever I pick, I hold to throughout the poem. However, if I have a reason, I might write one verse of very short lines in a poem of long lines, or vice versa. It’s up to us, as everything is in poetry.

And then there’s the question of verses. Do we want ‘em? Well, why not? If we’ve written a very short poem or we want a dense feeling or the poem sticks closely to one topic, we may not want to separate the lines into verses. If we want verses, how long should they be?. Some poets change verses the way prose writers change paragraphs. Many poets mix it up: no verses, verses like paragraphs, verses of the same number of lines, verses in a pattern of line lengths. Couplets (two-line verses), to my way of thinking, are highly emotional. Quatrains (four lines) are stately, marching down the page. Tercets (three lines) give an off-kilter, unstable feeling to a poem, which we may want sometimes.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Pick a few paragraphs from a book you love and turn them into free verse. But don’t just break the paragraphs into lines; think about how you might make them more poetic. For one thing, poetry is concise. Question every word. Any that aren’t strictly necessary get the boot. You can also bring in poetic devices, like assonance and alliteration, which will mean changing some words. (By the way, you can include dialogue, because dialogue exists in poems, too.)

∙ Do the same with a few paragraphs from your WIP.

∙ Take four lines of your free verse, or eight if the four are very short, and turn them into blank verse, with five iambs per line, which will definitely involve changing some words.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Start-ups

Before we get started, just a reminder of my poetry event with other poets at 3:00 pm on April 14th at Byrd’s Books at 126 Greenwood Avenue in Bethel, Connecticut. As I said last time, these won’t be poems for kids, but I’d love to see you there, and there will be time to chat.

Now for the post.

On January 4, 2018, Morgan Hanna wrote, What are some tips on writing the very beginning of a story? I’ve always had trouble with beginnings. I usually end up staring at a blank page and wondering why the words won’t come. I worry about starting too soon or too late, whether I should use dialogue, action, or description as an opening line, and how to make my beginning flow smoothly into the rest of my story without feeling forced. Does anyone else struggle with this, or has anyone overcome it?

Christie V Powell answered, Oh yes, beginnings are the hardest for me. Some general bits of advice that seem to help:

Don’t stress about the first draft. Give yourself permission to write bad stuff. This is especially true of the opening line–in your finished draft, you want to give it lots of attention. To get started, you can use “once upon a time” or “there was” or any cliche thing you want, as long as it gets the juices flowing. It’ll probably change later even if it was brilliant.

Instead of starting with story, I sometimes start with a line or two of my vision for the story. For instance “Two families escape persecution for their abilities to travel through dreams” or “The stereotypical Chosen One is a young widow with toddlers in tow.” You can also start by summarizing your ideas for the first scene: “Mira shows off her climbing abilities, has some dialogue with her sister, and hints of danger… right before the griffin carries her away!”

Sometimes switching from computer to hand-and-paper works for me. It doesn’t always work as well for beginnings, because it’s easy to cross out or start over when coming up with a first line, but sometimes the change in medium gets things moving.

And Bethany wrote, Make the first sentence something interesting, something that grabs the reader’s attention right away. The first sentence can even have foreshadowing to something later in the story. I’ve done that. Hint: don’t pull out the paper until you know what the first line will be. Once there’s a few words filling the blank space, the page is less terrifying.

I am heart-and-soul with Christie V Powell. Not that I’ve always followed her advice! But it’s a waste time fussing over beginnings at the beginning, as if, once we get the first pages right, the rest of the story will scroll out like magic; characters and plot lines won’t change; our perfect start will set the course perfectly.

Oh, how I wish that were true.

Occasionally I have gotten the first scene right painlessly–but not the second and/or the third, which are still part of my beginning. I always have to revise later-much later.

We can start by typing or writing, blah-de-blah-blah. Here I go again. I think I’ll call my main character Quasia, and I’ll give her a deep dimple on the left side of her mouth. There she is, sitting on the threshold of her mother’s house idly watching a gaggle of geese peck holes in the lawn.

And I know, because I have a glimmer of what my story will be, that a peddler is about to ride up, so I make him do that, and I’m not at all sure if this is the right moment for his arrival, but I bring him in because I want to get things going. Without thinking too deeply, I make his mule skinny, and I give him a dimple on the left side.

And I’m in. Blah-de-blah-blah will almost certainly not (though who knows what kind of story I’ll wind up with) pass muster as a beginning in my final draft, but it succeeded in putting me at ease. The blank page is beginning to fill up. I’m a little less scared, and I am absolutely not allowing myself to criticize what I’ve written.

I keep writing. The story begins to develop, and I discover that my peddler is such a sweetie that he would never let his mule be hungry, even if he has to go without. Either I make a note for my revision or I jump back and make the mule fat and the peddler emaciated. (The note for revision is preferable, because the girths of the two could change yet again–or one of them could disappear entirely).

In one of the many books and articles I read during my long writing apprenticeship, I found the suggestion that, when we get tight and scared, we cover the screen or actually close our eyes and type. I’ve done it, and it helps to shut down the judgment monster. (Weirdly, I also type more accurately with closed eyes!) When we finally open them, we can look at what we wrote, but we may not, on pain of–name your poison–revise.

This is embarrassing, but for the sake of the blog, here is the beginning of the first draft of Fairest (which, just saying, I wouldn’t have if I didn’t save what I write!):

Areida wasn’t pretty.  Her dark hair was lank and stringy.  Her skin was white as day-old snow.  She blushed easily but unevenly – a splotch of pink on one cheek, across the bridge of her nose, along her jaw line, and above her delicately arched eyebrows.  Her neck was a trifle long, causing her brother Stefan to call her Giraffe. She resembled a giraffe in more ways than just her neck.  Her brown eyes were huge, and her eyelashes were thick and splendid.  Her expression had the tentative sweetness of a giraffe.

In the final draft, the book is told in first person. Areida isn’t the MC, and there is no brother Stefan. Plus, the description of the eventual MC isn’t accurate. Also, I start with my MC’s backstory. But at that point, when I wrote the paragraph, I had no idea of all the changes that were on the way. It was a beginning that got me started.

Moving on. Part of Morgan Hanna’s question was whether she should use dialogue, action, or description as an opening line.

Yes. Any of the above, plus thoughts and backstory. Not only in a first draft. Any of the above will work in a final draft. The traditional advice, which is still offered, is to begin in medias res, which means in the middle of action. But not every great book does. Tuck Everlasting begins with description. James Michener’s Hawaii (high school and up) begins with a long chapter of geology! And it was a huge best-seller in its day.

How dull it would be if every story began formulaically in the same way.

It’s conceivable that we fiddle and agonize over the beginning out of fear of the fiddling and agonizing to come when we move into the middle. For many writers–I’m one!–fretting is part of the territory. Some books flow reasonably well, but some are bears. I’m resigned–and happy–because struggle is a writer’s life, as well as the life of our characters!

Here are three prompts:

∙ Keep going with my story of Quasia, the geese, the dimples, the peddler, and the skinny mule, but don’t change the blah-de-blah-blah until you finish and revise.

∙ Write a story of whatever happened to you yesterday. Start with the first thing you remember someone saying.

∙ Write three beginnings of the Greek myth of Helen of Troy. In one, start with action, in another with setting, in the last one with a thought.

Have fun, and save what you write!