Lights! Camera! ACTION!

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!

On the Links

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:

  1. 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).
  2. 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!

What Villains Do

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!

Burnt!

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!

Poetic Considerations

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:

The Tyger
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!

Tangled!

For the word nerds among us, I was wondering if lightbulb/light bulb is one word or two: https://sfwriter.com/2009/02/how-many-dictionaries-does-it-take-to.html#:~:text=The%20American%20Heritage%20English%20Dictionary,one%20word%3A%20%22lightbulb.%22

On December 30, 2019, Writing Ballerina wrote, Do you ever go to write, but find you can’t untangle the jumble in your head that is ideas and things you need to fix and character arcs and subplots and everything else? So then you either can’t write without getting lost and confused or you try to write and get overwhelmed and can’t go on too far because you can’t figure out what’s supposed to happen next?

An exchange followed with Melissa Mead.

Melissa Mead: Oh yes. In fact, I’m doing it now! I may have to backtrack.

Writing Ballerina: I suppose I should tack on to this: what do you do to get past it?

Melissa Mead: I wish I had a consistent solution. Mostly, I keep thinking about it and either writing around it or working on other things until things come together.

I wish I had a consistent solution too.

This is a hard question to answer, because once I get myself out of this kind of mess, a merciful amnesia falls over me, and I don’t remember how I solved it. Sadly, what I do recall is thinking repeatedly that I’d found my way, writing twenty-plus pages and then falling into a ditch.

Also, the medicine for one story may not cure another. Every project presents different challenges.

I’ve never abandoned a book, but twice I’ve written different tales than the one I set out to tell. The books were Stolen Magic and The Two Princesses of Bamarre. For both, I regret never being able to figure my original plots out because they interested me and I’d still like to discover what would have happened. In the end, though, I wrote the book I could write and let go of the one I couldn’t.

I remember with both books that I changed POV more than once. Two Princesses wound up in first person, and Stolen Magic switches among three third-person perspectives. Finding the POV helped, so that can be one strategy, to change POV and see the effect.

In Stolen Magic, I simplified and simplified to find my story. That can be another strategy. We can ask if we’ve taken too much on and complicated our plot with too many twists and turns and subplots. What can we strip away? What’s essential? Greed was at the heart of my original version, and I kept that.

We can ask ourselves lots of questions and answer them:

• What is the central problem of the story? If there is more than one, our lives will be easier if we decide which is paramount.

• Who is our MC?

• Is there more than one MC? How many? Too many? (Not that there’s a magic number. We’re asking this only because things aren’t going well.)

• Are the MCs’ goals related to each other (belong in the same story)?

• Is the time span as compressed as it can be? The plot will tighten if we can compress, and compressing may help us simplify.

• Is this world too complex? Do we have to juggle so many eggs that a few go splat?

We can make a timeline and ponder it. This may help us see what’s going on and what we need to do.

Same for chapters. We can summarize them. As I write, sometimes (often) I forget what went before. Being reminded keeps me on track.

I don’t believe that every character has to have an arc. If a character is beckoning to us, we can answer the call in another story.

Even in a late stage we can write the kind of outline I, mostly a pantser, write, a few paragraphs or a page, the broadest guide to the symphony that is our story, just the major movements.

As for things we need to fix, I think we should leave them unfixed if at all possible until we have a complete first draft, because the task will be easier then. We’ll know everything, and we’ll know what isn’t working and what is. What I do with this, is I note at the very top of my manuscript the things I want to keep in mind when I go through it later.

Let’s roll some fairytales together in these prompts:

• Your MC, a princess, is despised by her stepmother who owns a magic mirror, and she’s going to prick her finger and sleep for a hundred years. Write the story.

• Your MC loves the sultan’s daughter and is in danger from an evil magician posing as his uncle, and his sister is stuck in the castle of a Beast. Write the story.

• For extra credit, smush the two above prompts into one, combining “Snow White,” “Sleeping Beauty,” “Aladdin,” and “Beauty and the Beast.” Turn it into a coherent story, I dare you!

Have fun, and save what your write!

Down With Length, Up With Thrills

Before I start the post, tomorrow evening I’ll be speaking and answering questions on Zoom about A Ceiling Made of Eggshells, hosted by Belmont Books. I’ll also be happy to take questions about writing and any of my books. Bookplate signed books will be available. Here’s the link: https://www.belmontbooks.com/event/virtual-gail-carson-levine. You need to register to participate–it’s free. I’d love to see some of you in the little boxes!

On December 23, 2019 Alyce wrote, My book has a kidnapping plot, but it’s nearly 100k words. I’m trying to make it shorter and up the tension. Do you have any ideas?

Three of you weighed in.

Katie W.: What I would do is look at each chapter individually and examine what happens in each chapter. If you write a single sentence summary of each one, you can see where stuff does or doesn’t happen. This makes it shorter by removing the boring stuff, so you solve both problems at the same time. If that doesn’t help, I would take a look at subplots, backstory, and exposition, looking for places that are too long or too boring. Either way, the goal is to remove excess that’s slowing down the plot and extending the word count.

Erica: If it has a kidnapping plot, then you probably have a time limit. In those situations, tension can be added by putting a countdown at the top of each chapter, something like “Chapter 11: 25 hours left”. Although it makes your story marginally longer, it does increase the tension.

future_famous_author: And even if stuff is happening, like the scene isn’t boring, it can still be excess. I’m sure there are plenty of scenes in my WIP that don’t matter to the plot but are still fun to read and write. Things about what the reader needs to know, what pieces are necessary to reach the end, and take out anything that isn’t helping you to reach the climax and THE END.
Also, that’s a lot of words!!! My WIP right now only has 30K, and it’s the most I’ve ever gotten!!! I tend to get tired of stories before I’m even a fourth of the way done, but it sure sounds like you’re just in the revising and editing stages! Nice work!

These are terrific! I agree about taking the book apart and examining each scene. And time pressure is a great way to increase reader worry. And, of course, writing so many pages, whether or not they are too many, is an achievement. Congratulations!

There was a brief but thrilling bidding war over Ella Enchanted at the start of my writing career. In the end, the advance turned out to be the same from the two publishers, but one wanted me to cut a third of the book and the other, HarperCollins, said nothing about that.

I went with HarperCollins. But before I did, I thought about what I might cut, and I decided the book could do without the elves–no night in their forest, no Agulen pottery.

With HarperCollins, happily, I kept the elves–but I cut a third of the book anyway.

I was inexperienced, and I didn’t realize how much could be stripped off just by snipping here and trimming there. Nowadays, my revision process always involves a lot of deleting. No major amputations may be required, though hundreds of pages wind up on the cutting room floor.

So we can start there. I’ve said before (and I didn’t make this up) that the strongest parts of speech in English are nouns and verbs, and the weakest are adjectives and adverbs. We can scrutinize each sentence for culprits. As an example, in my last sentence, the verb is scrutinize. Instead of scrutinize, I could have written look closely at–three words instead of one and the result has lost power. Especially, we should question words that emphasize, like very, and ones that dilute, like almost and slightly. I’m often guilty of very, but usually we don’t need it. Pretty is just as intense as very pretty, and if we want to turn up the volume, we can use stunning or gorgeous–or one of the many synonyms.

I took a little side journey in thinking about the question and found this fascinating article about readability: https://contently.com/2015/01/28/this-surprising-reading-level-analysis-will-change-the-way-you-write/. I’d take the readability gauges cited with a grain of salt, though. The level seems to depend greatly on number of three-syllable words, and many of those are easy. Terrific has three syllables, for example, and I wouldn’t call it a hard word.

We can also check for repetition. I think it was Christie V Powell who mentioned in a recent comment that we should watch out for scenes that accomplish the same plot objective as other scenes. More than one isn’t necessary and can go. But it must be saved somewhere else!

We can check for repetition at the sentence level, too. Whenever I’ve done this, I’ve been astonished at how often I say exactly the same thing twice in entirely different words, so I fool myself. One sentence should be nixed. (I save even these.)

As some of you know, I’ve been reading from my books every day on Facebook. So far, I’ve read Ella, The Two Princesses of Bamarre, and Writing Magic. Last week, I started The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre. Except for Lost Kingdom, these are books I wrote a long time ago, and I’ve noticed how my writing has changed. There’s a scene in Fairest in which Aza observes zhamM, who is a judge in the gnomish courts, decide a case. As I read, I thought, What do I need this for? It adds nothing to moving the plot forward. I don’t remember if my editor wanted me to ditch the chapter. If she did, I must have refused. Its only virtue is that it does a little world-building (and it’s somewhat interesting), but it comes late in the book when the world is established.

Please learn from what I say, not what I did. Beware of self-indulgence!

Scenes should develop our characters, advance our plot, and build the story’s world (mostly at the beginning). Best of all is when one scene does more than one of these. Keeping that in mind as we revise will naturally heighten tension.

Next week, I’m going to start revising the first draft of my novel about the Trojan War, which is roughly three hundred pages long. When I wrote it, as a pantser, I was finding my way, not sure what I would need. Now that I’m done, I know. That perspective will guide my revisions. If a scene doesn’t do anything, I’ll kill it.

But sometimes increasing tension adds words. When we reveal our MC’s worries, the reader will worry too–and won’t mind the length. When we paint a scene in rich detail, the pressure will mount. Say our MC has to descend a cliff, and we show her experimentally toss a stick ahead of her and see it break into bits. The reader will be silently screaming, Watch out! as she puts a leg over the edge.

• Below are the first four paragraphs of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. When I read the novella a few years ago, I was amazed at how wordy it is. Your job is to shorten this part. If you feel like posting what you come up with here, I’d love to see it.

Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it. And Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘Change for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will, therefore, permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

Scrooge knew he was dead? Of course he did. How could it be otherwise? Scrooge and he were partners for I don’t know how many years. Scrooge was his sole executor, his sole[12] administrator, his sole assign, his sole residuary legatee, his sole friend, and sole mourner. And even Scrooge was not so dreadfully cut up by the sad event, but that he was an excellent man of business on the very day of the funeral, and solemnised it with an undoubted bargain.

The mention of Marley’s funeral brings me back to the point I started from. There is no doubt that Marley was dead. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate. If we were not perfectly convinced that Hamlet’s Father died before the play began, there would be nothing more remarkable in his taking a stroll at night, in an easterly wind, upon his own ramparts, than there would be in any other middle-aged gentleman rashly turning out after dark in a breezy spot—say St. Paul’s Church-yard, for instance—literally to astonish his son’s weak mind.

• Some of Dickens’ novels were serialized before they came out in book form. He had to produce thirty-two pages each month, which may have made a habit out of the prolixity (look it up, if you don’t know it–a great word!) we see here. The first four paragraphs, in my opinion, don’t do much in terms of plot and just a little in the way of character development. If you’ve never read the story and aren’t in the mood, you can read a plot summary on Wikipedia. Write your own first scene that does develop Scrooge’s character and begins the action.

• In Greek mythology, Hercules, in a fit of madness, murders his sons. To atone, he undertakes twelve labors. If you don’t know the myth well, you can google the twelve labors of Hercules. In my opinion, twelve is too many! Write the story condensing to the ones you think are the most important.

Have fun, and save what you write!

The Blahs

On December 22, 2019, viola03 wrote, Hi y’all, you may have noticed that I haven’t been as active on here lately, and that’s because I haven’t had a lot of time for writing because of school (I’m a high school sophomore). I’m hoping to write some over winter break, but I’ve run into a serious lack of inspiration. I do really want to write, but I’ve found that the inspiration for all of my WIPs has just ground to a halt. Any tips?

Melissa Mead kindly wrote, Welcome back! Gail’s posts have some great prompts.

And Writing Ballerina wrote, I get this sometimes too. You have a few options:
1) You can let them sit for a while until you feel refreshed. (Be careful with this one – I do this and then have the tendency never to feel refreshed. If this happens, let them sit until the details are fuzzy, then read them over with a reader’s eye and you’ll probably get excited about them a bit.)
2) You can add something random to spark things up and get the ball rolling (something like a green sea monster obsessed with raspberries or a random cat). (I did this a few times during NaNo.) This will help you write something, anything, and then the momentum of that writing (that will inevitably be cut later) can help you move on to the next plot point.
3) You can skip to a part that does excite and inspire you. There’s no rule that says a book has to be written chronologically.

And future_famous_author wrote, Read!!! Read a book that’s written really well. Read a scene from your favorite book. Watch a good movie. Or re-read something that you’ve already written.
Scroll through Pinterest. Look at the character inspiration pictures, and just keep scrolling. I got a really good idea for a story based on a picture that I found on Pinterest.

These are great suggestions! I don’t use prompts much for fiction, but I often do for poems.

Just yesterday, I finished teaching my annual writing workshop, on Zoom this year. Reversing the usual order of things, here are three prompts that I gave the kids that I don’t think have appeared here:

• Imagine the people who lived in your house before you did. Think about who they might have been, how they might have furnished it, what their hopes were. Put them in a story and use the house.

• In this version of “Sleeping Beauty,” the prince is the main character. His father, the king, has been captured by the evil Baron Von Roten. The ransom the baron requires is the pillow on which Sleeping Beauty has been resting her head for a hundred years. The prince has fought his way through the thorny hedge, but when he enters the castle, he discovers that it’s haunted. Write the final scene.

• Write the first scene for the prompt above.

Here’s a which-is-first-the-chicken-or-the-egg question: Which comes first, inspiration or writing?

I guess it depends on the writer’s process. But I’d wager writers get more done if writing comes first and inspiration follows. Here’s what I do:

• If I have to leave my WIP, when I go back to it, I reread the last chapter or two to see where I am. If I wasn’t in deep trouble when I put it aside, that’s usually enough to get me going.

• If I was in deep trouble, I’ll probably read from the beginning to see when my enthusiasm begins to wane. That’s the spot I need to focus on. What’s the problem there? Do the later scenes solve it? What else can I do? I’m always sad to cut lots of pages, but I do it if I need to. Getting to the root of the problem makes me happy enough to want to soldier on.

• When I can’t figure out how to fix a story, then I’m unhappy and distinctly uninspired. I write notes. I’m kind to myself about my daily writing time, but I do keep on with notes, dozens of pages of them sometimes. So far, I’ve always been able to get my story going again.

• If I suspended work for a month or more, I’ll also read from the beginning, because I’ll have forgotten too much. Rereading (and revising, because I can’t help myself) will start me up again.

(As an aside, I just wondered, since we have the word revise, was there ever a verb vise? My Oxford English Dictionary–OED–says yes! There was a verb vise with several meaning, having last appeared in print in 1587. How does that happen, for the do-over meaning to survive and the first-time-around meaning to bite the dust?)

Inspiration does come to me eventually. Over the many years, I’ve developed ways to find my stories, and I’ve talked about the ways here, but maybe not all of them.

• While I’m working on a novel, part of my brain is auditioning ideas for my next project. Usually, by the time I finish my WIP, my next book is in the wings, waiting for its cue.

• While I’m working on a novel, I read books connected with what I think may come next. Lately, since I’ve become interested in history, I’ve been reading history books. Both Ever and A Ceiling Made of Eggshells came out of reading.

• I maintain a state of receptivity to inspiration, so in a way I’m always trolling for ideas.

• I’ll leave my WIP, briefly, to write notes about a new idea that may sail through my brain.

• I save my ideas so that I can go back to them. I’ve mentioned more than once several fairy tales that intrigue me but I haven’t figured out enough to make them into a novel. Sometimes the gestation of an idea can take years, but I keep the germs on ice in my computer.

When I’m uninspired, I write anyway. My daily time goal goads me into it. Sometimes I don’t reach it, and then I forgive myself, but it’s there waiting for me the next day.

However, unless you have a deadline, unless you are absolutely committed to writing, I don’t think you should do it in misery. And even if you are absolutely committed, I still don’t think you–or I–should do it in misery. Take a vacation! Read a book! Swim the English Channel! Play solitaire!

Dip your toes back in the writing waters when you feel refreshed. Then see what happens.

I finished writing this blog yesterday, but today, in the shower, a relaxing place for ideas and inspiration to drop in, I started to list what I do and don’t like about writing.

Here goes, starting with the negatives:

• The isolation.
• Lacking a shared enterprise. My publisher puts out lots of books.
• How difficult writing is. I wish there were a potion to make it a little easier, one that wouldn’t rot my liver and didn’t contain eye of newt.

The positives:

• I tell myself stories. This is the most important one.
• I love my stories to be read. And my poems. On the poetry side, I’m satisfied if only my poetry critique friends see them.
• I get better. There’s always more to learn about writing.
• I learn about whatever I’m writing about–the Middle Ages, Mesopotamia, ancient Greece.
• Contact with readers and other writers.

There’s no contest. For me, writing is much better than not writing. And that’s inspiring.

Try the three prompts above and/or this one: Write the circumstances surrounding the death of the word vise. Who was there? Was its end deliberate? Was there a trial? Did it plead for its survival?

Have fun and save what you write!

Horrors!

Before I start the prompt, I want to let you know about a science comics contest for kids between ten and eighteen. One of the contest sponsors is my friend, kids’ book writer/science writer/intrepid Antarctic explorer Karen Romano Young, and this link is on her website: https://www.karenromanoyoung.com/scicom-comics-contest. Please let me know if you or a sibling or a child is a winner. And good luck!

On December 8, 2019, Poppie wrote, Do any of you have advice on how to write a horror novel, especially on how to make it scary? In movies, you can rely on camera angles, lighting, and sound, but how do you accomplish this in a book? Also, does anyone have any good horror/thriller book recs (I don’t do sexual content or excessive gore.) I was thinking about starting off with Edgar Allen Poe and Coraline.

Initially, I wrote back, I can’t help much about horror, because I’m such a wimp I can’t watch it or read it. Here’s one thought, though: Don’t reveal everything until near the end. Our imaginations do a lot of the work in scaring us–the villain half seen, the incantation half heard, the fright of bystanders.

And Song4myKingwrote, I don’t generally read horror, but I enjoy thrillers. Some recommendations …
– just about anything by Mary Higgins Clark. These are murder mystery thrillers intended for an adult audience, but they are pretty clean. It’s been a while since I’ve read any of them, but I don’t remember anything objectionable.

Alfred Hitchcock’s books. Actually, I’ve never read any of his, but some of my siblings have loved them. I’m pretty sure they’re clean too, because my mother kept a pretty good eye on what we read, and my brothers were reading them voraciously in their early teens.
– Ted Dekker’s books. Some of these might get a little more into horror. I haven’t read very many if them, so I’d say read them with caution. I’ve read and enjoyed his Circle series (RED, BLACK, and WHITE), which flips back and forth between a real world thriller and a fantasy setting; and I’ve read and partly enjoyed Thr3e, (yes, it’s spelled like that) which I would call a psychological thriller.
– Code of Silence, Back Before Dar
k, and Below the Surface, by Tim Shoemaker. These should probably be at the top of my list, since they are my favorites of these recommendations. And they don’t have objectionable content. They are intended for tweens and young adults, but I loved them as an adult, and so did my mom.

As for how to make books scary, I’d say it’s important to think of it on both the big picture level and the individual scene level.

Consider having a “ticking clock,” or some deadline when something bad is going to happen.

In short, make sure there’s always something to be afraid of.

By individual scene level, I’m thinking more about how you can convey the feelings of fear or unease within a given scene.

Your word choices can set the mood, and even sentence structure can make things feel more tense. You can think of this type of thing as the writing equivalent of the movie’s soundtrack. It’s creating a feeling on an almost subconscious level.

Then there are details. Carefully choosing which details to include in a scene is like the lighting and camera angle. Think about weather. You can include details of the dark clouds looming, or play a bit of the irony game. Set the character’s unease against a perfect, cloudless spring day for contrast. Think about surroundings. Is there anything in the environment, or any other people near by that can add to the mood? Most importantly, probably, think about the characters. What are their reactions? Posture? Body language? What does it reveal about their thoughts?

In short, make the reader feel the fear that the character is feeling (or should be feeling!).

One more note. Gail, do you still need more questions? Because you could take Poppie’s question in a broader sense. A post on conveying the right tone for any type of story could be very interesting.

These are great from Song4myKing! And I always need more questions!

Before I move to tone in general, a little about horror from my experience as a reader and watcher.

Dean Koontz may be a good choice to read. I’ve read only Watchers, which I loved. I think Koontz straddles horror and suspense. I don’t remember age level.

Many years ago, I read Rosemary’s Baby (high school and up) and was very scared. I just reread several pages of the sample that Amazon provides, which comes near the beginning. I approve of the writing–lots of detail, the tiniest hints dropped in of the danger lurking in the apartment that the likable young couple are thinking of renting.

There’s nothing breathless in the tone, no obvious foreshadowing. What may engage the reader and feed the horror is how easy Rosemary is to identify with, how innocent and sweet, how clueless. In the few pages I read I had to watch her bumbling disregard of danger. I didn’t feel Yikes! yet, but I felt it coming.

Here the stakes are high–the end of the world.

In 1955, when I was seven or eight, the horror movie Creature with the Atom Brain came out. (This was not long in historical time after the atom bomb was dropped and World War II ended. Atomic zombies, Nazis, and gangsters are involved.) Murder and mayhem are at stake. I saw the movie and had nightmares for months. Then, voluntarily, I saw it again and had nightmares again. I just read the plot summary on Wikipedia. I doubt that, even then, adults would have been very frightened. To this day, though, I remember what terrified me. Early in the movie, a policeman visits somebody’s home, where a little girl lives. The policeman is kind and plays with the girl and her doll. Later, after he’s been turned into a zombie, he comes back, picks up the doll and holds it by its hair or a leg, and he’s wooden rather than friendly; he doesn’t care about the little girl. That’s what got me, that he no longer cared about her (me).

The nub of that can be used for more realistic horror. The inexplicable withdrawal of love can be horrifying–or tragic–even without huge stakes.

The scariest movie I ever saw was a 1960s British psychological horror movie, Repulsion (older than adult, older than geriatric–certainly at least high school). In it, a young woman commits murder twice–but she thinks she’s acting in self-defense. She’s both villain and victim. Special effects reveal her deteriorating mental state. A rotting rabbit is involved. As I watched, I pitied her and was terrified. I would prefer a medieval torture rack to ever watching that movie again.

In Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby, the character we care most about can’t help herself. In Repulsion, paranoia has turned her mind against her. In Rosemary’s Baby, her lack of paranoia works against her. In both, there’s a balance of power issue. The MC is the victim. In some horror movies and books, the ones that turn out okay, the MC recovers control in time.

Let’s look at my own Ogre Enchanted, my prequel to Ella Enchanted, in which my MC Evie is turned (by Lucinda) into an ogre because she refuses the proposal of her best friend Wormy. The only way she can transform back is to accept a proposal from Wormy or anyone else. Physically, she becomes all ogre, a pretty one by ogre standards. Mentally, she’s half and half. Among other things, she’s hungry all the time, and humans and dogs and everything that moves looks tasty. The novel is a romcom, so Evie embarks on a search for love and also for ways to remain in the company of humans and heal them, since healing is her calling.

Her human side is able to control her appetite. She doesn’t eat the family cat or her mother or Wormy, but if I were writing horror, she’d eat the cat for sure and probably a human or two whom the reader cares about. The horror would be strongest in her distress at her own actions and her inability to control herself. The persuasiveness of an ogre would make it all worse. She could charm Wormy into offering parts of himself, while her human side is in torment. Aa!

So we have two contrasting tones: romcom and horror, set apart by the degree the MC can control what happens. Evie has to have trouble making things go her way or there would be no story, but if she has no control, we get horror or, I think, tragedy. Possibly humor, if it’s all exaggerated–exaggeration is one way to achieve a humorous tone.

What other elements of tone might there be?

Our MC’s thoughts help set it. We get adventure if she thinks about solutions to the troubles that beset her, tragedy if the solutions are there and she can’t take advantage of them.

What we draw our reader’s attention to is a factor. In Rosemary’s Baby, tiny details of the apartment and the building are on full display. I just picked up my fave, Pride and Prejudice, which is a romance and a comedy of manners, and opened it several times at random. What I read about every time was personal interaction, revealing relationships and character. Setting, which can help set a tone, is barely sketched in. Contrast this with suspense in a story that takes place in a haunted house–the house is almost as important as the MC.

Here are samples of beginnings of books from several genres. Directing the reader and voice come into these:

Science fiction, Robert A. Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land (high school and up): Once upon a time there was a Martian named Valentine Michael Smith.

Historical thriller with a hint of magical realism, John R. Maxim, Time Out of Mind (high school and up): …But what made him afraid, in a way no bar bully or snarling dog could, was snow… Jonathan Corbin saw things in the snow. Things that could not have been there. Things that could not have been living.

Mystery (clever, humorous, and intellectual), Rex Stout, The Black Mountain (may be okay for middle school–it’s been years since I read the Nero Wolfe series, which this is part of): That was the one and only time Nero Wolfe had ever seen the inside of the morgue.

Middle-grade adventure, Sharon Creech, The Wanderer: The sea, the sea, the sea. It rolled and rolled and called to me.

Notice what the reader is made to see or consider. Just saying, I admire Sharon Creech’s voice.

To summarize, some ways to set a tone include: MC’s control or lack of control of her situation and even her thoughts; our MC’s thoughts and attitude; and where we direct our reader’s attention.

Here are three prompts:

• Some fairy tales lend themselves to horror. “Snow White” is one, in my opinion. She’s mysteriously passive all the way through. And what’s more horrifying than being placed in a glass coffin and then being brought back to life by a kiss from a total stranger who assumes she’ll be glad to marry him? Write a horror version of “Snow White.”

• Give the horror treatment to another fairy tale. To me, good candidates are “Rumpelstiltskin” and “Hansel and Gretel.”

• Try “Rumpelstiltskin” as a mystery. Rumpelstiltskin has taken the child of the miller’s-daughter-turned-queen. Your MC, the fairy tale gumshoe, has been hired to find the child.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Fear of Writing

This is the usage item that I promised last time: You may remember that I’m working on a book based on the Trojan War. Well, women in ancient Greece lived restricted lives and didn’t go out much. They mostly stayed in the women’s quarters, and I wanted to know if women’s quarters can take a singular verb as well as a plural one, since in my book the women’s quarters are a single big room. According my favorite authority, the blog of grammarphobia.com, quarters in any context is always plural. Weird, huh? So a correct sentence is, as before, The women’s quarters are a single big room. And another correct sentence is, A single big room comprises the women’s quarters. Compounding the weirdness, the word headquarters can take either a singular or a plural verb. We’re deep in the weeds here, but English usage is mysterious and wonderful.

Onto the post!

On December 14, 2019, Kit Kat Kitty wrote, So… I’ve been having a problem lately.

I’m kind of afraid to write again. After the epic failure that was NaNoWriMo, I’ve been having a very hard time getting myself to write. It’s not just that I failed, it’s that I feel like I failed so badly. I hate my story, I hate my characters, I hate the idea… but I used to love all of those things very much. I’ve always had a difficult time choosing ideas, but I was invested enough in my NaNoWriMo idea to want to finish it, and to think I actually could.

And I know I asked a question about writing past the beginning, and I still need an answer to that, since I’ve always had that problem. But now I can’t even write anything without thinking I’m gonna fail, and end up ruining a really good story/world/characters.

Any advice on how to get over my fear, and write even when I’m 99.9% sure I’ll fail?

I wrote back, I’ve added your question to my list, but I won’t get to it for a while because of all the excellent questions above it. In the meantime, please put your NaNoWriMo project away and don’t look at it for at least a month. At the end of the month, peek at it. If you still despise it, put it away for another month. Repeat. While you’re waiting, write small projects, like poems or letters to imaginary relatives. Treat your writing injury as you would a sprained ankle. Go easy.

And future_famous_author wrote, If it takes you so long to get back to your NaNoWriMo story that you want to start something new, that could be a good idea, too. And, if you don’t stick to that, try going back to your NaNoWriMo. Maybe all you need to do is get away from it for a little bit.

That was seven months ago, so I just went into my blog dashboard and looked at Kit Kat Kitty’s recent comments, and I’m happy to report that she/you are back to writing. The NaNoWriMo novel even got finished. Congratulations!

I also see that it hasn’t gotten its author’s seal of approval, which may come in time. Or not.

The important thing is to keep writing. We learn when we write, whether we’re working on something new or on a revision.

Writing itself is hard, but it isn’t the only hard thing about writing. Harsh, global self-criticism is the other hard part. I used to paint and draw before I started writing, but my self-attack was so relentless that I stopped eventually, which I talk about in Writing Magic. A book that helped me enormously, which I think I’ve mentioned here, is Writing on Both Sides of the Brain by Henriette Anne Klauser. The author theorizes that the nagging voice in our mind comes from outside criticism when we were very young. That evil criticism worms itself inside us until it becomes part of us. Kit Kat Kitty’s fear may be fear of that inner carping voice.

One remedy may be to put aside the art aspect of writing and concentrate on craft. Let’s compare it with something you know how to do or something I know how to do, and for me, let’s take lifting weights, because I’m mighty proud of my brute strength. Often if lifting isn’t going well, the reason is that I’m not tightening my muscles, or maybe my feet are too close together, or I’m not keeping my chest high. It’s never a failure of character, talent, potential, or even, so far, of encroaching decrepitude.

Same with a piece of writing. Say we think we hate our characters. In the aggregate, that isn’t helpful, so we pick a particular character, our MC, for instance, whose name is Janey. Well, what do we hate? We can list everything we despise. I’ll make up a few items:
• She’s whiny.
• She’s always thinking of herself.
• She doesn’t say anything interesting.
• Janey is a terrible name! She isn’t a Janey!

If we apply the craft approach, we’re in for more lists. Take the first item and the third. Both are about dialogue, though the whiny part can also happen in her thoughts. We look at her dialogue and find something she says that we find uninteresting. We consider the circumstances of the boring remark. Maybe what she said is the best anyone could do at that moment. We think about who else is talking. Is this a conversation with her best friend or with someone she doesn’t know well. Why does she say what she says? What does she hope to achieve? Well, what could she say instead that would work in the situation? We make a list! And we remember that nothing on a list is foolish. We banish fear, because no one is going to read our list, and we aren’t going to judge it, either, for two reasons: because it’s just a list and because we’ve sworn off judging.

We can also ask ourselves what she’s thinking while she speaks. Is she aware that she isn’t adding any excitement? Her thoughts can make her speech less boring. For example, she may be dreadfully shy and wildly imaginative. While she’s saying that the tulip is pretty she can be imagine the flower swallowing her and turning her into a person without a mouth.

Or we can look at her whiny thoughts and speech. We can change these too by listing other options for each example. Sometimes we can simply cut. We can make her self-aware. She can check with a friend to see if she’s feeling too sorry for herself.

The trick is, using craft, we eliminate our emotional involvement. This is just a problem, like a weight-lifting one or a math problem, to solve. When fear, hate, or despair surface, we banish them. We don’t have time for them.

I really do this. Sometimes I question what I’m writing in a discouraging way. Then I get back to my WIP. By now, it’s become automatic. The attack isn’t useful.

As soon as I started writing for kids, I realized one of its advantage over drawing and painting: Writing is infinitely revisable. You can paint over oil and acrylics again and again, but you lose what went before, which you may want to go back to, as I often did. This is why I say to save what you write.

My only fear as I write this is that if you’re learning from me, you may become as slow a writer as I am! Lists take time. Do-overs take time. But I don’t know any other way.

Here are three prompts:

• MC James and his best friend Shinara are FaceTiming about the locusts that have descended on their town and the surrounding farms. They are cracking each other up with a list of the pros and cons of locusts, and neither one is whiny. Write their dialogue. (You may want to Google locusts, because in about two seconds of looking, I found something that could go in the pro column–or in both the pro and con columns.)

• For the fun of it, James and Shinara decide to meet halfway between their two houses, even though they’re not supposed to go out. Write what happens.

• Your MC, Princess Shinara, aka Sleeping Beauty, is the guest of honor at the Sweet Dreams palace ball where she is destined to prick herself. She believes nothing interesting ever comes out of her mouth. Her big worry at the ball is that everyone will fall asleep at the magic moment and wake up thinking how dull she is, and they will dream for the hundred years about the uninspiring, insipid monarch they’re stuck with. Write what actually happens at the ball.

Have fun and save what you write!