Threading the Plot Needle

First, here’s a link to an interview with me: On the site you’ll find interviews with other authors and lots more for us bookish types.

And I heard something horrifying (in a writerly sense) on the radio in an interview with Patricia T. O’Conner, whose books Woe Is I and Woe Is I Jr. I keep recommending. She said that a question came in on her blog,, a fascinating site, about the meaning of head nodding and head shaking. The questioner wrote that she’d (I think it was a she) had always thought a nod meant yes and a shake meant no, but lately she’d come across instances of the reverse. Pat looked into it and discovered that the meaning had shifted somewhat and the questioner was correct; sometimes a nod means no and a shake means yes. Aaa! Talk about shaking. My world is shook, rattled, and rolled. I’ve always used head nods for yes and shakes for no. Have I confused my readers? Have these neat, quick, formerly unambiguous gestures been taken away from me? And from you, too?

I don’t know what I’m going to do from now on, maybe ignore this bulletin from the front-lines of English usage and assume that most readers will understand my meaning. Or maybe make each nod and shake so clear no one can be mistaken, but, ugh, that will require extra words I didn’t need before. Anyway, I wanted to share the news with you because confusion loves company.

The interview moved on to naming places where a nod always means no and a shake always means yes, like Bulgaria and India, which is interesting, but not particularly worrisome.

Now on to this weeks question. On June 24, 2011, maybeawriter wrote, What’s driving me nutty is that I barely have any scenes for my main story, and the one or two I have are no longer completely relevant to my story. I think my problem is that my storyline keeps changing in notes, conversations and deep thoughts. Not that a changing storyline is a problem, but it’s almost changing too fast. And now I had this new, completely story-changing idea. And now my story is shattered and I have no idea how to put it back together and make something from it, something that makes sense and somehow involves my oldest ideas. Maybe I just have trouble letting go of my old storyline. And maybe I fear the blank nothingness of the unknown, of the ever-changing story where nothing is sure, nothing set in stone, nothing to keep this story, well, this story. If I change too much, is it still the same story, or something new and unfamiliar?

I love to get together with writer friends and talk about current projects because the discussion is almost always reassuring. I’m making up names here, not using real friends: Annabelle says she’s trashing her novel and starting over; she had to write the wrong book so now she can write the right one; this has happened to her before.  Randy says he hadn’t been able to write anything for two months but he wrote three pages last week and hopes he can keep going. Inga says she doesn’t know what her book is about fundamentally, which is making the going rough for her. I say I’ve started my novel over five times, once after writing 260 pages.

Nobody I know ever ever ever says, I sit down at the computer every morning without fail and pop out seven glorious pages. Isn’t writing the merriest occupation going?

No, writing is strange and inexplicably hard. It all comes out of our heads. Our materials are ideas, so why can’t we shape them easily? Why don’t they just chink into place?

They don’t, and that’s why it’s delightful to be with other writers, the only people who really understand. Maybeawriter, I don’t have a solution for you. What you’re going through is, in my experience, the writer’s lot. But I have a suggestion, which you may do already: when you’re most miserable, talk to other writers or read writers’ blogs or books about writing. I love the name you’ve given yourself: maybeawriter. That uncertainty is wonderfully honest about the writer’s state.

I glean two questions from you, one about scenes and the other about story direction. Scenes first.

Suppose we have a character, Mallory, who is starting a new school, say it’s magic sculpture school. Graduates create manikins that assist people in subtle ways, physically and emotionally. Mallory’s problems are that she’s brutally honest and has trouble taking criticism. Her strengths are her creativity and her sympathy. The major conflict in this story will revolve around these traits.

We need scenes to show Mallory in action. Where to set them? With which characters? Do we start by getting her in trouble in a small way and build or do we make it bad right away?

This is where I would begin to wander if I were taking this on, because I don’t know how to answer my own questions. Maybe I’ll write a scene with Mallory and her mother. Mallory has insulted her cousin, and her mother is taking her to task for it, and Mallory isn’t responding well.

But the action isn’t going to take place at home, so that scene won’t advance the plot. Probably I won’t use it. Still, I’ve seen Mallory in her home environment, which is informative. Now let me try one at the new school. In this scene we’ll see her creativity and her touchiness and we’ll introduce a character or two who may be important later on.

With luck this second scene moves us into the story and suggests scenes that can follow. Mallory antagonizes one of her teachers but interests another. A fellow student hates her; another falls in love with her. How will the teacher she antagonized react? How will the others? We temporarily forget our thematic ideas in the excitement of the detailed moment-to-moment writing.

Then we stop writing for the day. We walk the dog and ruminate about plot direction. Ideally our ideas support the direction we’ve started in, and sometimes this actually happens to me. But sometimes I anticipate problems based on what I’ve written. I think I need to go back to establish a new path ahead or I see a different route entirely, and I know that’s the way I have to go.

In an earlier version of Beloved Elodie, which finally is moving along, I had madness descend on Elodie’s island of Lahnt. Elodie’s mother is possessed by greed. She imagines herself as King Midas and has no regrets about turning her daughter to gold. It’s a disturbing and powerful scene, and I still love it for its power. I mourn giving it up, which I had to do to take my story in a viable direction. My tale isn’t what I started with, but now it’s one I can write. Maybe someday I can use the ideas in the mother-Midas scene and maybe not.

We have to go with what we can do. I’ve said before that I’m an unconscious writer. This is the way I see it: Our selves below the surface guide what we write. There are layers to that hidden self, which is why we veer this way and that, why the road through a story takes many detours. Although I’m often not happy about how long I need to meander to follow my story thread, I believe the added complexity serves our art. Maybeawriter, “the blank nothingness of the unknown” is where writers operate and where we shape our magic sculptures.

Here are three prompts about Mallory:

∙    Mallory is assigned to create a sculpture that will help a depressed eight-year-old boy. Write the scene in which she meets the boy for the first time.

∙    Write the scene I mentioned above in which Mallory alienates one teacher and interests another, causes a student to hate her and another to fall in love with her.

∙    Write a scene in which Mallory begins to create the sculpture for the boy.

Have fun and save what you write!

  1. From the website:

    Emma- It seems to me that your problem with supporting characters is very specific to your story, so it might require a very specific solution. So this possible solution may not fit your story very well, but have you tried to merge some of those characters together? If any of them act similarly or have the same sorts of talents, you may want to consider blending them into one.
    Also, thank you for recommending Jessica Day George- I've never read 'Princess of Glass' or 'Princess of the Midnight Ball', but I reread my copy of 'Dragon Slippers', and that really helped. She does have amazing descriptions.

  2. This post is a treasure! Although I suppose they all are. Excellent, Gail!

    @Julia – Actually, I hadn't thought of merging some characters, but I'll give it a shot. Boy, writing has got to be the only occupation where you can combine to people into one and delete people you don't like!

  3. From the website:

    I just read A Tale of Two Castles for the first time !! It was GREAT 😀 Thank you for writing this great book. I actually did suspect the murderer, believe it or not, but that was just a very lucky guess and–well, I won't say anything more because I don't want to spoil it for anyone. I thought it was a very good mystery book and I am really looking forward to Beloved Elodie. It will be a mystery novel too, right?

    I love the way you establish the cultures and setting of your books and I was looking for some advice on that. I like how your different cultures all their own different things that make their culture so much different than another culture. But it can be difficult for me to make my cultures unique and interesting. It's hard to make up traditions and customs that are interesting and seem unique and real. Does anyone have some advice?

  4. From the website:

    Thanks so much for talking about my question, Mrs. Levine!

    (I know you've said Gail is fine, but it somehow doesn't feel right to address you by your first name, it's so familiar.)

    I'm thinking that by best bet is to try and write the story as it sits right now, and only make major changes when it changes the story for the better. Which I suppose is the best any author can hope for, right? 🙂

    I personally didn't recognize the murderer until Elodie herself did, which of course made it an even better ride. I especially like how you managed to make a murder mystery without anyone dying, which is awesome.

    About cultures: I have the same problem. I think I'm going to end up borrowing a good deal from medieval England, but there's a good story-based excuse.

  5. @Maybeawriter and Elizabeth – I don't know how much this will help, but there's a lot of stuff out there on world building if you search the internet. I know a good jumping-off point can be to take cultures most readers know little about and see what some of their traditions are. Eastern European, Asian, Indian, Native American, Native Australian, Indonesian, etc. are all cultures that have unfamiliar mythology and traditions where you can get inspiration. Pretty much any place in the world, actually. For a story I'm working on, I'm combining dragon mythologies from across the world.

  6. From the website:

    Elizabeth- It can be pretty hard to create different cultures for different countries. Before I start writing a story, I usually create a three-ring binder for each main country. Then, in each binder, I create six different sections.
    In the first section I jot down what the country's citizens consider fashionable. In the next section, I write about the country's climate and the kinds plants and animals that they farm, and the foods they can make. In the third section, I write about the country's government, like whether the country is a democracy or a monarchy. In the fourth, I write about the country's economy. Perhaps the country is rich in precious metals, but imports a lot of furs. In the fifth, I write about the country's geography. In the sixth, I write about the country's art styles, holidays, and main religion.
    As I write my story, I refer to my binders and incorporate the details as needed. It's the little things that makes a country seem real. I hope this helps.

  7. About the whole nod/shake thing . . . I keep noticing problems like this in my writing! Somebody says "I don't think she'd do something like that."
    And another character shakes her head to say "I don't think she would, either."
    The head shake could say either 'she would' or 'she wouldn't' – hard! I often have to reread and make sure it's all clear before moving on.

    @Elizabeth – I agree with Maybeawriter and Caitlyn, I work off of existing cultures as well. In my fantasy series, some of the countries/cultures are based loosely off of real places. I like the system, because I can use whatever I need to save both the trouble of working from scratch and the need to explain it all, and when I don't like something I can just change it!

    @Julia – that's a good idea, about the binder! I do some of that, but not all the categories. I should, though!

  8. Gail, thank you so much for doing the interview on Bookshop Talk! We feel so lucky!

    On another note…nods can mean "no" and shakes can mean "yes"? Yikes! That really does pose a problem for writers who want to keep things simple….

    Julia: Your binder idea is fantastic, and very helpful! You know, sometimes when I'm feeling a bit of writer's block, I find it useful to do something different than just writing my story. Thinking about and writing down the kinds of details you mentioned (your six categories) sounds like a great exercise to get in the mood to write. And it sounds super useful, too! Do you do something similar for your characters?

  9. From the website:

    Kim- I'm glad that you like my binder technique for countries. I don't do that for my characters, however.
    I create my characters' personalities using Gail's excellent chart that she mentions in 'Writing Magic'. Another way I develop my characters is through a personality test that uses the Briggs-Meyers personality type system. (Here's the URL to the test: I simply take the test while pretending to be my character, and out pops their personality type. It's very accurate, and an easy way to understand your characters better.

  10. First, I enjoyed reading the interview. Your answer for five (*cough*six*cough*) books surprised me, but I guess it shouldn't have. 😉

    Second, don't worry about the nod/shake thing. I'm pretty sure the general populace, particularly the English-speaking ones, still consider a nod to mean yes and a shake to mean no. I had actually heard about this "opposite" thing a few years ago, but it still isn't the norm.

    Elizabeth, a good way to know how to create interesting and unique cultures is to experience as many real cultures as you can. Get outside of the culture(s) you know and explore. You may not be able to travel in person (the best way to explore), but you can read books or search the Internet about them. If you can't experience it, research it. That's true for pretty much anything you put into writing.

  11. I have a writing assignment to write a story that teaches a moral, but I'm stumped. I'm not very good at writing deep or morally moving stories – I kind of just write whatever fantasy I can make up. Does anyone have any advice on writing a story that teaches a lesson or gets a point across?

  12. @Elizabeth- on your q about the cultures… just have fun with it and draw inspiration from other cultures and things you see! I story I worked on for a while was like this: it had 2 cultures in different places. One was very much (actually completely) based on people's dancing abilities and gardens. Another is more harsh, yet also based on different arts, such as writing, story telling and dancing with bulls. (LOL I know this all sounds really weird, but it was cool if i say so myself…)

    @Julia- thanks for sharing about the binders- that's such a great idea! Like JennaRoyal said, I do some of that but not all! Thanks you!

    @Emma- ugh those assignments always seem so hard when they use the word 'moral'! I think they should use a different word. Anyway, I agree with Ms. Levine… When you think about it, every story has a 'moral' in some way. So just write and then see if your story has a 'moral'! 😉

  13. Gail- I read your interview and I have a bit of a problem with it. (If only for the sake of an interesting argument.)When you were asked about your interest in fairies you said "I like that they don’t exist, so I can make them up." Well according to your books you just killed a fairy. And what if it was your own fairy? Or mine? Now you must clap your hands and say "I do believe in fairies. I do. I do." as many times as you are old. My birthday was a few days ago and I said it 14 times. Even though you are a Clumsy you know the secrets of the fairies and you must protect them. How come Disney stole your ideas? Can anyone write about Disney fairies? Why did you make your sister the teary-eyed water-talent fairy Rani in your fairy books? Is her personality really like that? Is it just because it sounds like Rainy and Rani is a water talent? Or is it really pronounced Ronny? Because that's the way the audio reader said it. Did you base any other fairies off of people you knew like you did with Dame Olga and your aunt? Does Rani paint pictures of fairies? Would she if she hasn't?
    On an entirely different subject…
    I've looked at your posts on P.O.V. but I can't seem to find the answer anywhere. Can you switch from first person to third person throughout a book? Or is that too confusing for the reader? I want to write part one of my story in first person through the eyes of my protagonist, Part two in first person through the eyes of the antagonist, And part three in third person omniscient. In part three my MC and his enemy run into each other in the middle of the woods. I want the reader to know both their thoughts at once. Is there another way to do this?
    Ok. I can't remember my other questions so I'm done with my interrogation. For now…=Þ

  14. Melissa–The death of a fairy when a child says she doesn't believe comes from James M. Barrie, the author of PETER PAN. Disney paid me for my ideas! The Disney fairies are covered by copyright. You can write about them, but not for publication. My sister readily sympathizes with others, and she loves to swim. Her name is pronounced RONNY, which is how I think of the character's name. The other fairies are entirely invented.

    Yes, you can switch between first and third-person POV. For example, Margaret Atwood does this with great aplomb in THE BLIND ASSASSIN (high school level and above).

  15. So does Pendragon. Switch between first and third person, I mean.

    Anyways, this is a little random, but I play the harp and soon I'm going to an international harp competition in Paris. (the Lily Laskine competition, if you wanted to know.) Recently I had a great idea. I'm going to bring a notebook and the character chart in Writing Magic, and make up characters from people I see.

    Just a random thought I had =D

  16. You can switch POV in a story but, it's best to make sure you do it at a clear break (like a chapter) to make things clearer for the reader. You might want to have your parts labelled "Book 1, Book 2, Book 3" or something like that.

    POV is tricky. I just had to rewrite a short story because I switched POV in a scene and hadn't even realized it.

  17. From the website:

    You know, I've been wondering about the Disney thing for ages, but for some reason never brought it up.
    I was wondering, how much did Disney give you as a jumping-off point, and how much was your own ideas? Was it your idea to make the sequels, or did Disney want you to?
    What about Vidia? How much of her was your idea? Do you feel annoyed that they changed her personality so much in the Tinker Bell movies?
    And the Tinker Bell movies as a rule. It grates on me every time somebody calls her "Miss Bell," although it's mostly this one fairy that you could argue is incomplete.

    I adore Rani! She's my favorite fairy, although Beck runs a close second. Water talent powers are just so awesome! In fact, if I got my wish to be able to switch between a human and a fairy whenever I wanted, I'd want to be a water talent.
    I also love Rani because was her selfless, noble sacrifice of her wings. – Sniff – It's so beautiful!
    Also… I think you said at some point that even though the fairy you named your sister after was your personal favorite, she wasn't completely happy about it. I wonder, what could she possibly dislike about such a noble fairy?
    (If that last one's too prying, you obviously don't HAVE to answer it.)

  18. Maybeawriter and others–Those are a lot of questions! I don't mind, but they're too much for a comment and probably not enough for a post. So here's a call for questions about my books. You ask, and I'll answer in a post.

  19. About character building-I have three ways.
    1: I will sit in a crowded place (a mall, movie theatre, park, etc.) and pick random people to sketch and write a character for. This is also really fun to do with a friend (but it can get pretty loud).
    2: This one I stole from Roald Dahl. Grab a bunch of old magazines and newspapers. Cut out noses, eyes, hats-whatever till you have at least a face. Then think about what personality suits the face. Then give your character a name. C'est fini!
    3: Base characters off your friends, family, enemies-anyone. Even try combining some people.

    @Emma- I have that exact problem! I have decided to put all my random stories into a collection of short stories. But as for morals, try thinking about the most basic thing first, then see if you have a bigger moral to tie into it. Good luck!

  20. From the website for my post about my books:

    So you said you were taking questions about your books, and I was wondering, how long did it take you to write Writing Magic? It seems like it wouldn't have taken very long, because you have so much writing advice stored up, but you never know! Thanks for answering questions from us and being an awesome author.

  21. For post on books-
    You put a different kind of twist on Fairies and the Quest For Neverland. Why were the last chapters so depressing until the end? Why was Gwendolyn just stuffing fairies in her bag?
    Why did you choose not to save Meryl in The Two Princesses of Bamarre?
    Was Ever based off of a fairy tale? What inspired it?
    Why do the people in Fairest go around singing things like "hello" When you'd normally speak it?

  22. From the website for my book questions post, which may turn out to be more than one post, which is fine.

    # 840 – 10/04/2011 – 2:34:PM – IP: – Host: host183-211.wifi.ubc … – UA: Mozilla/4.0 (compatible; MSIE …
    book questions…. hmmmm
    um… I was going to ask which is your favourite, but I think you've already said it's Dave at Night. What's your second favourite?
    How do you start a book? Like, do you have a bunch of tentative ideas and when you finish one you start working on another? And when do you tell your publisher what you're doing? (You said you have x amount of time to finish Beloved Elodie, right? So there's contracty stuff already?)
    Which is the more agonizing first draft–Two Princesses of Bamarre or Beloved Elodie? Or another one?
    Who chose David Christiana as the Fairies illustrator? Did you work with him in some capacity, or did your finished manuscript get shipped off to him for illustrations? Do you like what he did with it–are his illustrations true to what you imagined?
    Before you published Ella, were you feeling a bit lost, like you might not ever get published? Did you get that "why am I wasting my time on this?" feeling? The one where everyone looks at you funny because you're the only person you know who's writing a book on top of everything else? Did you get annoying non-writers asking to read it when it was so rough it wouldn't have made any sense to anyone?
    Did anyone ever say something so mean (well-intentioned or not) that it still haunts your writing confidence today? Not a publisher, I mean (I remember you said in Writing Magic you got a terrible letter about Ella when you were starting out…), but a friend?
    What did it mean (monetarily and emotionally) to be "able to quit your day job"? Or is that too personal a question?
    I get the feeling these questions are getting less and less about your books themselves….
    Can fairies die of old age, or just disbelief/hawks/drowning/etc.?
    Do you still muse about characters whose books are written and over?
    Is this too many questions? 🙂

    Oh yeah, and I was rereading Fairest a couple weeks ago, and it really struck me how familiar your voice was after reading your blog posts for so long. Every so often I would go "yes! that is so something she would say!" But that's the joy of rereading, isn't it? 🙂

  23. Okay, book questions . . .
    I think you said you changed the POV in Fairest. I may be wrong, but if you did, who were your original MCs?
    How often do you wish you could go back and change things that are already published?
    Do you ever read your finished books?

    @Clara Warford – that's a great idea! The harp competition sounds really cool – I love harp music. Last year my choir got to sing with a harp guild and it was amazing. Maybe you could wrote a story based on the competition itself! 😛

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