Onward! Or Backward?

First off, I’ve come across a magazine that seeks story and poetry submissions from high school students, and, since the submissions must come from students themselves, not from schools, I assume you can be home schooled if you’d like to submit. And the publication actually pays a fee if a work is accepted, rare in the poetry world. Here’s the link: http://www.hangingloosepress.com/submissions.html. Be sure to tell us here if you get an acceptance. Good luck!

Second off, I’ve announced on my website that there’s a sale on the e-book version of A Tale of Two Castles going on until April 20th, which isn’t very far off. Here’s the link if you’d like to take advantage of it: http://www.gailcarsonlevine.com/news.html.

And third off, a reminder of my tour for Stolen Magic, which starts in a few days. The farthest west I’m being sent (tour arranged by my publisher) is Ohio, but for you easterners, I would love to meet you! Here’s the link to the details on my website: http://www.gailcarsonlevine.com/appears.html.

Finally for the post! On December 1, 2014, Bug wrote, I’ve never actually… uh, finished a story. This NaNoWriMo I got 30k, which is twice as much as I have ever gotten. So, it’s exciting, but I’ve realized that I need to change something, and it’s so major that it’ll change EVERYTHING. Should I just continue and pretend that I already wrote it that way, or start over?

Erica Eliza responded with, First, congratulations for getting that far. Some changes aren’t as big as you think. If it’s something drastic, like switching the POV, I’d say restart. If you can get away with rewriting certain scenes and tweaking lines in others, keep moving forward. (This is still the same Eliza, BTW. I just tacked my first name onto my screen name.)

And Rapunzelwriter chimed in along the same vein. I’m not quite done with mine, but I reached 30K as well and am currently feeling like I have to rewrite most, if not all of my story. I’ve also been having a problem with not being able to recognize anything good in my work. Sometimes I’ll finally finish a short story, and after re-reading it, groan because I see so much that needs to be fixed, and rarely anything good. Any advice?

carpelibris offered, Sounds normal to me! Rough drafts (at least to me) are just a pile of “stuff” you make in order to have a complete thing to work on. Raw material that you can turn into something wonderful.

At the time I replied, Everybody works differently. I’d recommend that you keep going and, yes, pretend you’ve already made the changes. By the time you get to the end, you’ll have a better idea about how to revise.

Now, reflecting at my leisure, I still mostly agree with myself, although I don’t always follow my own advice and I’m not even sure if it applies to every story.

In my experience, just moving forward is a happier way to write. In my novels Ever and A Tale of Two Castles, I did just that. I was confused, I often felt that I didn’t know what I was doing, but I kept going. I finished both books in under a year and a half, pretty quick for a turtle of a writer like me. And I look back on those books as comparatively painless. I’m trying to do the same with the manuscript I’m tentatively calling Bamarre, the prequel to The Two Princesses of Bamarre, which I’m working on right now, even though the process has been interrupted by poetry school.

On the other hand, I did start over–and over and over–in both Fairest and Stolen Magic, and both books were miserable to write. Fairest took four years and Stolen Magic four and a half, although I did write Writer to Writer in the middle.

In the case of Fairest, I couldn’t get the POV right. The underlying problem, however, was that I was at a loss about how to handle the part of the story after the Snow White character eats the poisoned apple. Once I realized what to do there, I was able to write in first person from her POV and everything fell into place. Was it necessary to go through all those iterations to figure it out? I don’t know.

I was even more mixed up with Stolen Magic, and my problem was plotting, specifically plotting a mystery, which has to have suspects (I forgot them in the first 260 pages) and has to be solvable (which I forgot in the second 140 pages). Unlike Fairest, if I had managed to write either of the first two versions, they would have been very different stories from the one that I ultimately developed, inch by inch. I regret that I never figured those stories out; they were interesting, and my curiosity about them didn’t get satisfied.

So I suppose my recommendation is to keep writing new pages if you can. If you can pretend that you’ve made the revisions, if it’s clear enough to you what you will have to do later, then just keep writing. Go back only if you absolutely can’t go forward.

About finishing, I always finish. Sheer stubbornness is one reason. A story that is a figment of my own imagination is not going to defeat me.

Another is curiosity. Since I don’t outline, I don’t know exactly how my story is going to turn out unless I write it. The ending may be clear in my mind, as it is in the book I’m working on now, since it has to prepare this world for the events in Two Princesses, and I know the feeling I want the ending to have, but I’m not yet sure how I’m going to get there, even though (I hope) I’ve written two-thirds of the book.

The last reason, and probably the most important one, goes to the heart of Rapunzelwriter’s final question. I can keep going because I don’t look for what’s good or bad in my WIP (work in progress). In fact, I studiously avoid this question, which will just lead me down the rabbit hole of self-doubt. I recommend that everybody avoid it. If that self-doubting voice in our mind starts piping up, we have to stamp it down with both feet. Yes, we have to decide if our characters are acting according to character. Yes, we need to vary our sentences and remember to include sensory information other than the visual, and so on. We have to be critical in a nitty-gritty, detail-oriented way, but we don’t have to be nasty to ourselves! We have to give our stories, ideas, words, plots, characters–all of it!–a chance to shine. I believe we can squelch our negativity if we pay attention to our self-critical impulses and don’t let them take over.

Even when I finish a novel, the big question I ask myself is, Is this working? Not, Is this good? We can let the critics weigh in on that. We can just congratulate ourselves and do a victory dance and have a party and set off fireworks for having made our way all the way to “The End.”

Having said all this, I also think it’s okay for you (not me) not to finish. If you’ve learned all you can from a particular story, or if you’re bored, there’s nothing wrong with moving on. If you’re a young person, you’re changing at a crazy pace. What appealed to you a month ago may no longer be the slightest bit interesting. So try something else, and don’t worry if that fades, too. The only important thing is to keep writing, because if you do, eventually you’ll finish something.

Here are three prompts:

• We never hear about Snow White’s younger sister, who won’t ever cause the mirror to arouse the evil queen’s jealousy. But this sister has extraordinary qualities of her own, which the dwarfs put to good use. And it’s possible that Snow White’s prince has a cousin. Make their lives intersect and write their story, which may or may not interfere with Snow White’s troubles.

• Go back to your Snow White story and switch narrator in the middle. If you were writing in first person from the sister’s POV, switch to omniscient third or to first person from a different character’s POV. Do not go back. Just keep writing. If the story now takes you in a different direction, that’s okay. When you finish, revise.

• Experience finishing. Take a simple story structure. Could be this: Your MC desperately wants to win a contest. Say there’s a kingdom, and every year the young people compete to find a large ruby, which the king hides. Your MC tries three times and finally succeeds. That’s it, the whole story. Write it in three to five pages. Include two to three other characters, no more. Give your MC a personality. Include dialogue, a hint of setting, and get it done!

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. This post is so encouraging! Thank you for sharing your experience about your own stories that were difficult to write. The story I'm working on right now is one I've tried to write, off and on, for four years now. I've gone back and restarted it three times, and it's getting frustrating. I keep trying to quit and start something else, but the story just won't let me go! Thank you for this encouragement that it's okay–even normal–for stories to be difficult and that the best thing to do is just to keep on going. I wish you the best of luck on your new story, Mrs. Levine!

  2. Really enjoyed this post!!! Just keep writing, just keep writing! (Dory continues to inspire us all! – "Oh, it runs in my family. At least, I think it does. Um, where are they?" :D)
    So. I am facing a strange problem. My character made a major decision partly because of her parents. However, the reader never actually meets her parents, so her decision seems a bit equivocal. To enlighten the reader, I'm going to have to insert an early scene of her. Unfortunately, the reader can't know that it's her, because I don't want it to fit together until the very end. I suppose I don't HAVE to put in this scene, but I would like to. Being unable to name her for the ENTIRE CHAPTER, do you think I should abandon it because it would be too confusing for the reader?

    • Hmmm…. I think you're right about putting in a scene with her parents so that it seems more balanced.
      Would it be possible to write a prologue in which they are included? That would work if your story is from 1st person point of view. (I've read several books that are in 3rd person in the prologue or introduction and then switch to 1st when it happens.) If the decision or the scene with her parents doesn't have enough meat on it to count for a prologue, you could intertwine another subplot in there…but then again if you want to keep it a mystery until the very end it might be a bit obvious that way. I don't know if that would work or not. Depending how big the decision is, and how much it will affect your character, I think you should include that scene for sure, unless it is more of a minor decision. Either way, keeping her unnamed doesn't mean you just have to refer to her as she and her. Often in books where the MC doesn't know the names of people she is talking to, she names them like: Weasel, or Squeaky Voice (they're mostly villains,) but even just 'said The Girl' capitalized can work too.
      Even if it doesn't work, I would at least try it out. You never know!
      This is a bit rambly, apologies! 🙂

    • I don't think I should draw too much attention to the scene, or the reader might guess who it is, so probably not a prologue… But the scene is necessary, I think. You have the excellent idea of "naming" her – that'll help me lots! Come to think of it, calling her a princess (that's what she is) might even help me to lead the reader off track! Long story… 🙂
      Thanks so much for helping me decide on it, and for the suggestions!

    • Another thing you could do, along the same lines as rapunzelwriter's idea, is to use the main character's family nickname or an alias in the scene. Nicknames work great because they don't always have to be related to the real name itself, and can be very personal when only your family knows you by it. Take Laura's nickname in Little House on the Prarie, Half-pint, for example. Another example is my friend whose family calls her Newt. It's still her, but very few people know her by that name. With an alias you don't have to worry about recognition at all. I read one book where the main character was a prince who had started a new life and changed his name. The backstory was told using his real name, the story itself with his alias. The name change actually added to the plotline itself. Just an idea.

  3. This came into the website from Yulia:

    My main character is VERY moody. She is rather oversensitive and gets easily upset. I reread my manuscript and she’s crying in every other scene. I don’t want a main character who’s making mountains out of, well, let’s say, gnome’s hills, but that’s her character.
    I tried making her more unemotional, but then she seems bland. I want her to be passionate and vibrant like she is, but what kind of reader wants to sit through a crybaby heroine?

    • There is a difference between unemotional and overly emotional. From your description, it seems as though your heroine falls into the latter category. However, since she is sensitive, she can respond in different ways to different scenarios. For instance, if her best friend insults her, she will probably respond really angrily, but if a stranger did the same thing, she would most likely burst into tears. In summary, I guess that my main point is that there is more than one way to react to difficult scenarios, tears are not the default.

    • I had a character like that a little while ago. She cried a LOT. Often enough to make ME annoyed. But I didn't know what to do, because I felt like that would be her response. I changed her personality rather significantly in the end, so that instead of a crier she became a yeller, a person who took whatever it was that was making her cry and used it to make herself angry. When she was angry she would do something about her anger. Her responses to her anger were not always good responses, but they were much more fun and I suppose, in some ways she was more relatable. What I've found to be the case with vibrant, passionate people (I know a few) is that they don't cry a lot. They may get angry, but they really don't cry a lot. Sure, they will cry every now and again, but they don't cry about their problems, they DO something about them, their problems are what drive them to do great things. People with passion have a fire in them and they don't just fall apart over little things (or even big things) they get angry over wrongs and work to correct them, they do not sit and cry, they strap on a sword and fight the dragon, or send reams of letters to the unjust governor. They may cry initially but it doesn't last long, and when they are done, they get busy and deal with the problem. There are thousands of passionate people in history, take Sojourner Truth. She was an unbelievably passionate person, and did she sit around and cry? NO! She DID something about her problems!

    • Yulia wrote back on the website:

      Thank you for posting my question. See, I’m not the most sensitive person, so it’s awkward to write a character who is. Here are all the crying scenes in the book (working manuscript is 94 pages). Can I change any of them?
      Page 13, she loses her true love: All-out waterworks explosion.
      Page 13 (further down on the page), she realizes she has to hide her sorcery to keep everyone safe: Her vision gets blurry, she wipes her eyes, scene over.
      Page 23, she strikes her friend with her out-of-control sorcery and she thinks she killed her: Brief crying, more out of fear and shock than devastation.
      Page 38, she realizes the prince doesn’t love her: Whimpering with realization, then stops herself quickly.
      Page 46, she’s plain stressed out because her friends won’t get along and she’s not sure what to do: Again, very brief crying. Her friend stops her.
      Page 66, she’s struck by the fact that what she’s doing is wrong: Stops herself quickly, but continues to feel tense and near tears for another 4 pages.
      Page 71, she’s in prison and realizes she deserves it: Again, all-out waterworks.
      Is it that there’s too much action in too short of a book? It’s not a long novel, so maybe I need to spread some of that out.
      I know that in Shannon Hale’s Enna Burning, the girl Enna is in a crisis for most of the book and there are many brief scenes where she starts to cry a little. That to me wasn’t annoying, because she’s got a serious problem on her hands. But I’m not sure if my character is going to come off as a wimpy, oversensitive, spoiled little brat.
      If you could give me some tips, that would be much appreciated.
      Also, I’m writing a fight scene, and it’s very choppy sounding. It says:
      Jack grabbed the Wizard from behind and shoved him down. The Wizard threw him off. Jack rammed him into a pillar. The Wizard seized Jack’s ponytail and raised his sword to his head. Jack wrestled away and kicked the Wizard hard in the gut.
      How do I avoid the pattern of “Jack, the Wizard, Jack, the Wizard”? I read your “fight scene” post but it didn’t really help. Though most of the time you are very helpful.

    • Well, I think on 13, #1, the explosion of tears is good. The second one…you decide. I know that when I make a tough decision, that's when I STOP crying and start dealing with stuff. Then again, when I've already been crying, it's very easy to break down all over again.
      On 23, I might cut the crying. When a person is badly hurt and/or nearly dying, you don't waste time crying, you try to help them I know this from experience. Utter terror and shaking hands etc. is fine, crying not so much.
      On 38, do. what you like, I personally wouldn't cry. I might drive myself half mad wishing things different and being embarrassed at things I might have done to "encourage" the prince's liking for me, but I personally don't think I would cry, I would be too proud.
      On 46, again, do what you like, it is especially good if her friend stops her, because I feel every character ought to have a moment where a friend scolds them for being foolish, or stops the tears by comforting the MC.
      On 66, Once I realize I'm doing something wrong and stop I don't cry about it, I'm glad I caught myself. If I've done the wrong thing all the way through and then realize it I might cry. On 71, waterworks are perfectly acceptable there, I probably wouldn't change it.
      These are just my opinions based on my experience, other people are obviously very different and you can do whatever you like.

    • As for the fight scene, how about this?

      Jack grabbed the wizard from behind, shoving him down into the ground. Throwing him off, the wizard sprung off the ground and was rammed into a pillar moments later. As Jack paused to grab a breath, the wizard seized his hair and raised a sword to his head. Kicking him in the knee, Jack managed to wrestle away and kick him in the gut.

      And finish. The main thing I think that you need is to vary how you start your sentences. I used clauses and action words to keep the reader interested and allow them to follow the the action better. Using only subjects as your openers makes the sentences all bleed into each other, which not only makes your scene hard to follow, but also makes the reader lose interest. If you want, though it isn't all that good, you can use this.

    • The original fight scene did sound rather like two guys taking turns walloping each other. In a fight, or in any other high action situation, more than one thing is happening at a time. After the wizard threw Jack off, he's not just holding still waiting for Jack's next move. Bibliophile fixed a good bit of this, by phrases like, "Throwing him off…"

      I think it might also be important for you to think about and consciously decide your point of view. Is this told from the perspective of a watcher, or from the perspective of one or both fighters? As you tell it here, the fighters seem to be shown equally. This allows you to show how each is moving. But showing from only Jack's or only the wizard's perspective could show how one person is moving all the time and might be getting exhausted. To do this for Jack, instead of saying "the wizard threw him off" you could catch the feel of being thrown off. And later, the feel of his hair suddenly being yanked back.

      But of course, what do I know? The only fight scenes I've written are verbal fights!

  4. Oooh, a prequel?! The Two Princesses of Bamarre was the first book of yours that I read-I can't wait to read the prequel.
    Also, this post was extremely helpful and probably one of my favourites you have written.
    I know, Ms. Levine, you said you didn't outline. However, I know of many famous authors who swear by it. What about you guys (other readers of this fabulous blog)? Do you find it easier to finish a story with or without an outline? Does it make you story better? I hadn't outlined until I read all these things saying it was much better if you did outline, but I'm not sure if it's going to work for me, so I was just wondering what you guys thought.

    • It all depends on the writer. I know of excellent writers who outline (extensively or sparsely), and also excellent writers who "pants" everything (meaning they make the story up as they go along). Both kinds of writers are equally capable of pulling off AMAZING books.

      I myself tend to fall into the outliner's camp, but I don't plan so thoroughly that I know everything that will happen. I like to leave some room for creativity. My outlines are never set in stone. For shorter projects, I plan much less and end up halfway pantsing it, but for the 4-book series I'm working on…let's just say I would be entirely lost without my outlines! So I guess it depends on the project as well as the writer.

      Hope this helps! 🙂

    • I agree with Tracey that it's different for different writers. That seems to be the way with any art.

      I outline. I find I have to know that there is a possible way to reach a good ending before I can actually begin writing. Basically, I figure out and write down what the main plot points will be, and I have in my head at least some idea how I'll get from one to the next. Sometimes this takes the form of possible chapter titles or a rough timeline.

      I do go through a bit of a (very unorganized) process in my head before I can figure out an outline. I compose scenes and try out various directions that I then keep or kick out. I wonder if those of you who don't use an outline do a bit of that same processing while actually writing?

  5. I'm a pantser. I've tried to outline, but it quickly goes astray.

    From what I've heard and read, a lot of my favorite writers are pantsers too. I wonder if that's common?

  6. I'm reading Writer by Writer now, and I'm curious to hear what Mrs. Levine thinks about the benefits of pantsing over plotting. I've always outlined because I have friends that outline religiously, but sometimes, especially if it's raw in my head and not a revision, I feel like I'm bleeding out my enthusiasm for the story and trying to commit the colorless remains to paper. Other times, I try to get by without it and I realize that there are parts missing or I worry about my stakes being high enough. Does this mean I should try pantsing?

  7. So I have a question and I'm just looking for the general opinion. I have a story in 1st person POV where the character finds a book. I want the next chapter to be about the story she's reading, but it would have to be in 3rd person in order to work. Do you guys think it's ok to have a 3rd person chapter in the middle of a 1st person book, considering the context?

    • Yep, I've seen this type of POV shift plenty of times. I think putting it in 3rd actually works better than a second 1st POV. This way the reader won't confuse the two narrators.

  8. Sure! In fact, the switch could make it clearer that you're in the "story within a story." You could end the chapter before that with something like "She opened the book and read…"

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