Rainy Day Misery

Thanks for weighing in on the changed blog! If you have more thoughts, please post them. By the way, what used to be called labels are now categories.

Now a little pre-post before the main event:

Without being specific, a writer recently asked on my website about advancing controversial opinions in stories that might offend some readers. This has come up before, and I’ve written a couple of posts on the subject. Basically, I’ve said that we shouldn’t stifle ourselves, and we don’t know whom we’re going to offend or not offend, anyway. The most seemingly bland scenario may trouble someone.

A fresh idea has occurred to me, however. I still don’t think we should worry about our readers. There is literature in the world putting forth every take on every topic in the universe. But we may want to protect ourselves.

Something like this was addressed not long ago in my poetry school in a master class about writing about actual people in one’s life (which I’ve also written about here). One of the poets teaching the class had published a collection that revealed troubling family history. The response from his relatives was less than positive. I think he had every right to publish, but he also had the right to not publish and shield himself if he felt that he wouldn’t be able to deal with the hurt.

This doesn’t apply just to life experiences. If we put forward an unpopular position, whether our readership is broad or narrow, we need to be prepared to accept the response. I’m not saying not to do it–maybe we should do it–but we should brace ourselves. If we’re not ready for criticism or even anger, we can hold off and wait for a better moment.

Now for the regular post. On January 15, 2015, KLC wrote, I had been writing short books that had good ideas, but were not suspenseful at all and leaving me with absolutely no reason to turn the page. Then I started planning for other books and as I started to write them, I realized that the only way I knew to make my books suspenseful was to add in lots of drama and people dying. The problem is that that’s not how I want my books to be like, so how do I make a good, suspenseful book without making it a blood-and-gore horror story. (Perhaps I have been taking your advice “make your characters suffer” a bit far…)

At the time I wrote, I’m adding your question to my list, but it will be a while before I get to it. In the meanwhile, readers will be in suspense if they care about your main character and if he or she needs something or wants something or is in trouble. No one has to die.

And this is what I’m writing now: I love to walk but not in the rain. On most Tuesdays I commute to New York City and while I’m there I like to get in a long walk of about three miles, because I especially enjoy striding through the bustle and along the interesting architecture. The endorphins kick in after a while, and I feel like the healthiest old lady on the planet. Starting on the previous Wednesday, I anxiously watch the weather predictions. It’s silly. My health won’t be damaged if I miss a walk or two, and it’s not my only form of exercise. Usually I’m lucky and get sun, but I worry that I’m wasting my wishes on weather, and when something really important comes along, they’ll all be used up. Still, I care a lot. If I were a character, and the reader sympathized with me, he would want the sun to shine whenever I wanted it to.

Could this desire for a sunny day be a suspenseful part of an interesting story? I think so. Let’s make me a lot younger than I am and let’s call our MC Abigail, since no modern young person is named Gail, alas. Abigail is an outdoorsy person, and things haven’t been going well for her lately. Let’s say her Geology teacher seems to have it in for her and she’s failing, even though she loves the subject. Her best friend has texted her with accusations that make her feel awful, even make her feel that their friendship since they were toddlers may have been a sham. Oh, and let’s top it off: The friend’s accusations are true, because the most misery comes when we are guilty (and, I think, the most reader sympathy).

Abigail needs a break, so she plans one for the next day, because today is shot. It’s spring. The dogwoods are in bloom and she hasn’t seen them yet in her city neighborhood. She packs a picnic lunch the night before and decides to leave early for the big park a mile from her house. If the day is clear, she’ll be able to outstrip her unhappiness or walk into it and figure out some strategies. She goes to sleep visualizing sunshine.

If our story has been very tense up to now we may give her a break and blue skies. If not, we make it pour. She’s cooped up at home because it’s the weekend. What does she do? She obsesses about her friend. She composes an answer, then thinks it won’t do, tries again, gives up. Next, she picks up her geology textbook, reads a paragraph without comprehension, shuts the book with a thud. Desperate to do something positive, she decides to cook dinner for her parents and make her favorite recipe, which they also like, but it turns out that a crucial ingredient is missing, and the deluge is still going on. We’ve set it up that she doesn’t deal well with frustration. So far she’s been cautious and positive, but we know that isn’t going to last. She starts curling her hair around her finger, always a bad sign. The reader wonders in what way she’d going to go off the rails–and keeps reading.

So what have we done? We’ve taken a trivial wish and surrounded it with unhappiness, because we do need to make our characters suffer, even if the suffering is unlikely to kill or maim them or anyone they love. I don’t think I’ve made Abigail sympathetic enough in just this summary, but we need to do that, too, to persuade the reader to turn the page. One possibility for that would be to put her in the presence of her friend, who’s ignoring her. We reveal her thoughts, as she wonders about the right approach, as her friend smiles and talks with other people, maybe even glancing in Abigail’s direction and looking away.

A great example of all of this is Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery. Nothing more violent happens than Anne cracking Gilbert Blythe over the head with her school slate. There’s death, but it’s not the focus of the story, and a baby gets the croup, but Anne saves her. What draws us in is how unloved Anne feels herself to be, with some reason, her ardent desire for whatever she wants at any point in the story, her wry self-awareness, and maybe five other things I can’t think of. Certainly the voice of the narrator is engaging. If you haven’t read it, I hope you will. You don’t have to be eight years old; it’s worth studying.

Although no lives are at stake, the themes can and should still be big. In my example of Abigail and the sunny day it may be friendship, self-worth, self-understanding, empathy, personal growth, honesty. That we touch these grand motifs will also keep readers reading.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Make the reader care about your character’s wish for one of these: a melted cheese sandwich, eyeglasses, quiet, a single good idea, a set of watercolors. Write a scene or the whole story.

∙ Show Abigail at home after receiving the hurtful text. Make her sympathetic through her thoughts and her preparations for the longed-for sunny day.

∙ Write the argument between Abigail and her friend when it finally comes. Make the emotional wounds deep, as if this were a battlefield and the words were swords. If you like, then bring about a reconciliation. If you don’t like, use the argument and the injuries sustained to launch your plot, in which the pain is never physical. You can end finally with renewed friendship or separation and growth, or, tragically, just separation.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. I still remember a true story I read once, maybe as much as 30 years ago, about a little girl who was dying of cystic fibrosis, and asked her father for some soda. Just a sip, because by then she couldn’t drink a whole glass. There was no soda in the house. The father raced to the corner store. Then he had to find the right kind, and stand in line while the person in front of him counted out change…it broke my heart, and I still remember it all these decades later. And while yes, the little girl was dying, that was never in doubt. The tension came from whether or not she’d get that one sip of soda before it was too late.
    (IIRC, she did.)

  2. Great post, I liked it a lot. I don’t always find it easy to work suspense. Thanks!
    I do have two questions.
    Q 1. I have two characters, both are fairly major to the plot, the one is named Amias, and the other Andras. I love both names to death, and they fit the characters perfectly, but I’m worried that they sound too similar. What do you guys think? Would you find it confusing?
    Q 2. So, I’ve totally revised my TTDP story. It was very hard for me. It’s still hard for me, because now the time setting is more similar to ancient Roman instead of medieval. Well, more or less. It’s kind of a cross between Rome at it’s various time periods and Tira in River Secrets. But most of my stories are set in medieval or renaissance or Viking-ish time periods, and I’m having trouble getting this together. Does anyone have any thoughts on world building to share? I would be ever so grateful for any help whatsoever. Thanks.

    • First–I think the names are fine. I’ve read books with characters who have similar sounding names, and it’s usually been alright.

      Secondly–I’m writing a book in a setting different than my normal-ish type, too, so I bought a book by Jill Williamson called “Story world First.” It’s fairly cheap on kindle and was very helpful, and fun to read, too. It had a lot of useful things to think about.

      Good luck! Sorry if this wasn’t very helpful!

      • gailcarsonlevine says:

        I’ve added Q 2 to my list, but in the meanwhile would love to hear from other people as well. And thanks, Bug!

    • Martina Preston says:

      A 1. I think that is just fine! (BTW both those names are amazing…. I love names)

      A 2. I bet that is hard; medieval time periods are just so much easier to manipulate! The only thing I would say is to research on the Romans and maybe (I know there are some out there) read some books written about a character from the Roman time period. Also, if all else fails, you always have Wikipedia =)

      Hope that helps!

    • Song4myKing says:

      For Q1, I hate to say it but I do think it will be a little bit of a problem. If your characters are distinct enough, and especially if you introduce them at different times, there shouldn’t be a lot of actual confusion (as in, “Is Amias or Andras the character who …?”). However, I have read books where two characters had names that only began with the same letter and while reading I would think I saw one name and would go several sentences or even a whole page thinking of the wrong person and get confused because it didn’t make sense. I’m not alone either. Others have told me it happens, and I’ve read warnings about it in writing books. It’s a fault in the brain of the reader, I think, but the author can help by choosing less similar names.

      I know it’s not what you want to hear, because it’s not what I like to hear either. I have three characters, my MC and her twin sisters, who all start with “S.” I named them before I heard any warnings about such, and now no other names would fit them in my mind (I even have middle names that sound nice with their names and are significant in the story). So what’s to do? I’m sending it as it is to publishers, hoping for the best, and hoping if I get accepted that my editor will tell me if I must change them.

      About Q2, I think you’ll have to start with some basic knowledge of place and time, then let your mind explore aspects of life that probably won’t be included in the story. Imagine your character in the clothes she’d wear and follow her through a day or a particular event as if you’re watching a movie of her. Another thing that helps me establish place is sketching a little map of where things are in relation to each other. Once I drew up plans for an entire house because I had someone trying to escape un-noticed from there.

      Hope something helps!

      • Sorry, but I’m another one who gets confused by similar names. I just finished a book that I really liked (I think it might be a Hugo nominee), but didn’t love as much as I might have because the many similar names kept throwing me off.

        • Thank you guys!
          On the answers to Question 1: Thanks for your input, I think I’ll keep their names as they are, but I’ll do my best to keep them very distinct from one another, which won’t be hard, they are very different characters, and they speak very differently, so hopefully it won’t be too confusing.
          On the answers to Question 2: Wow, those are some great suggestions! I’ll look up that book Bug. Yes Martina Preston, I use wikipedia frequently. Song4myking, I’ve researched my time period as thoroughly as I can and have a notebook with all sorts of my favorite details written down. (Also, I sort of thought I was the only person who drew up elaborate floor plans. I do that all the time, mostly just because I love it, but also because I like to know where particular rooms are etc.) Melissa Mead, those websites are wonderful! Thank you very much for sharing those, they are a great help.

          • You’re welcome! It came from “CL Favorites” on the Carpe Libris webpage. (You can get there by clicking on my name.) The group’s not very active nowadays, but there are some handy resources on there.

  3. This was a great post!
    I have two questions…the first one is for anyone out there who’s a plotter. My whole life I’ve been a pantser, but most of my stories have basically fizzled out after a while. I love the story I’m working on right now, and I really don’t want that to happen, so I’ve decided to try outlining. I’m worried about basically killing the fun of writing it, though. So, my question is, how do you guys keep it fun while still outlining?

    Second, one of my main characters is extremely different from me. (For example, with Myers-Briggs, I’m an INFP, and he’s an ESFP.) It’s really sort of hard for me to write him sometimes because he’s so…not at all me, I guess. I guess my problem is that I have to write a person who’s very much a people-person, while I’m not (I definitely LIKE being around people, I’m just sort of shy a lot.) Does anyone have any advice for that?

    Thanks! (Also, thanks to Chicory and Carpelibris— Melissa Mead?–for giving your input on my question last post. I really appreciate it.)

    • gailcarsonlevine says:

      I’m adding your second question to my list. For the first, I, too, would love to hear from people about this, and I’d like to expand the question a bit. How do you make the outlining itself fun, as well as the writing afterward?

      • Song4myKing says:

        I first have fun figuring out what’s the problem, how it’s going to turn out in the end, and sort of how it’s going to get there (not necessarily in that order). That’s fun, but for me it also is necessary in order to begin writing.

        Then I have fun outlining – it might be a list of interesting, sometimes cryptic phrases or possible chapter titles that catch the gist of what I aim to show (and I take delight in knowing that no else but me would know what on earth they mean!). Or it might be a little more detailed – like, if I still have to figure out how the MC’s perspective on things will change.

        Then I write. And because I don’t usually put details into the outline, and because an outline is only “telling,” I finally get to actually reach those scenes I’ve been dreaming of and actually “show” them in all their glory.

      • morwencider says:

        Usually I don’t outline but I’m collaborating on a comic book with my friend so we had to. Outlining was fun partly because we did it together so we got to bounce ideas off each other, reign in each other’s craziness (or embrace it) and joke around. Also, there’s something really satisfying about crafting a plot carefully. There’s still room for surprise both in the outline itself and in the writing as long as you don’t outline absolutely everything- coming up with good dialogue, images, jokes etc. and figuring out exactly how things happen.

    • Martina Preston says:


      I don’t outline. I know that may sound crazy, but I find the best stories just continually flow into my head as I am writing. (Of course this happens over the course of a long time, unless I have a really good idea.) When I get stuck, I call one of my friends and she reads the story so far. Then, we have fun brainstorming about what the character would do next.

      For your second question, Bug, I have a hard time with that myself, so I don’t really have any advice as of now.
      Sorry about that =)

    • Jenalyn Barton says:

      I used to think I was a pantser and hated outlining, but I’ve started to discover a way that works for me. I start by discovering my story first–either writing the first draft or in my head–by completely “pantsing” it (that sounds really weird, but you get my meaning). After I’ve discovered the story I examine the story and find the key points. This is best done by examining the ending, then picking out the scenes that best lead up to it. I then write out an outline using those key scenes, tweaking it where needed to best lead up to the ending. I then either rewrite the story or write it out for the first time (when it’s just in my head) using the outline as a guide so the story doesn’t change completely.

      I’m only just discovering this process for myself, so it isn’t perfect, but I think I’m starting to like it because it’s giving me the best of both worlds. 🙂

      • Well, I’m a pantser, but I’ve learned that I have to do at least SOME outlining, or everything falls apart. I’ve made a document of story plots, and basically all I do is this:
        Q: Who is the MC?
        A: Lorina Markham, ladie’s maid.
        Q: Who is Lorina’s mistress?
        A: Lady Maer Withers.
        Q: How does Maer treat Lorina?
        A: Well enough when they’re alone, but when Maer’s father is around she hits and yells at Lorina.
        Etc, etc, etc. I find this helps me a great deal, asking questions and figuring out the answers.

        For your second question: I write characters that are unlike me all the time. The thing is, no matter how different, each and every character has some small part of me, I cannot avoid it. At the heart of every character is a trait of yours. Be they heroes or be they villains, every character contains something from you, which makes it easier for you. Basically just focus on the bit of your character that is yours and imagine that that part was your whole being. If the bit is, say, laziness, then imagine yourself at your laziest, when you won’t even get out of bed to get a book that is two feet away. Imagine how you (being lazy) would react to a particular event. I’ve found that when I’m lazy I end up doing more work than when I’m industrious. It’s not helpful work, it worthless extra motions, (like wiggling around for three minutes to get the book with your foot and then stretching to get it with your hands once it’s almost in reaching distance instead of getting up and getting it in five seconds.) just to make things “easier.” I also drag things that would take fifteen minutes out into an hour long affair. So when I write a lazy character, he does that too. It’s not that difficult once you start thinking of it this way, I’ve found. Hope I helped.

    • Ooh, I’m an ESFP!
      Okay, first of all, things have to be fun. I’m pretty sure that’s a requirement for all ESFPs. If it’s not engaging, they’re going to be bored out of their minds.
      I think ESFPs are generally quick thinkers, and often don’t think much before they do things, or don’t see the whole picture. My mom tells me that I speak and then I think about what I just said. 🙂
      If there is no one to talk to, or no one is talking to them, they’ll probably just chatter to themselves or go looking for someone to talk to.
      They have trouble hiding their strong emotions.
      They love to perform and entertain.
      Also, you should check out the ESFP profile/description if you haven’t already.
      Hope this helps. It might be useless. I don’t know. 😛

  4. Elisa: I might get a smidge confused by the names, but that’s just me. Maybe you could come up with a nickname for one of them.
    You read River Secrets too! Oh, I am so happy to hear that. I adore that book. It’s my second-favorite, after Enna Burning, of course. You don’t happen to be Erica Elisa from Shannon Hale’s site, do you? Do I sound kind of weird?
    I was writing a story in China once, a rewrite of the legend Mulan. Back in those days in China, girls had their feet tied up for years to keep them small, and that meant that they couldn’t run well when they were older. My MC had to be able to run, so I called the place the Middle Kingdom instead of China and left out the historical details like that.
    And Gail, hate to say it, I sort of liked the old color scheme better. It was easier to see with the black typing on white page on navy blue background.
    Bug: I hate outlining. I base most of my books off fairytales and old stories, and go from there. For example, I did Madame Butterfly with a MC who had butterfly wings, and the main plot was sort of the same as the original tale, but with a few twists. I also did Snow White with a girl who had ice sorcery (hence her nickname, Snow) and Cinderella as a fire witch who always smelled like cinders.

    • Yup, I’ve read River Secrets, and after the Queen’s Thief series, it’s my favorite. No, I’m not Erica Elisa, though I do comment there from time to time, I just haven’t lately, and I usually do it under another name. No, you don’t sound wierd.

      • Erica Eliza says:

        One letter off. I am Elisa’s name clone. We are two separate people, but if it helps, I’ll change my name to aogeapegewtgapwofnsohtewphtaweotho to prevent further confusion.

          • I used to totally get your names mixed up, and wonder why Elisa was answering her own questions and then thanking herself for it….and then I saw the “z”.

          • Martina Preston says:

            XD That’s funny. I don’t think I’ll have a problem with anybody’s name sounding like mine… ^-^

            And yes, me too, Bug!! I always skip over some letters when I’m reading and it throws me off

    • Thank you everybody for your help! Your outlining processes sound like good ideas. Yulia, your stories sound really cool. Rock On, thanks for the help about the ESFPs!

  5. Phew, all clear. There aren’t many Yulias in the world so I think we’re all clear who I am. Otherwise I could change my name to qwertyuiopasdfghjklzxcvbnm if it helps 😀
    I’ve always wanted to be named Celine, Jessica, or Ella (after Gail’s amazing heroine, of course). But my mom is Mongolian-Russian so she called me Yulia, the Russian form of Julie or Julia.
    By the way, Gail, don’t feel bad about your name. I know a 14-year-old whose name is Stephanie Gail Jenkins, and my elementary math teacher (who is 39 now) was named Gayle.
    Do you have any advice for improving this letter to an agent?

    Dear Mr. —— (name removed for privacy):

    I am seeking representation for FRIENDLY FIRE, a 50,000 word upper middle-grade/young adult fantasy set in medieval England. I understand you agented ——–, and I believe my story is similar to hers.
    Adriana Hathaway was an ordinary lumberjack’s daughter…until she crossed the Dragon of Canterbury. Now she has the ability to create fire, but controlling it is a different story. Assisted by her best friends, Adriana seeks the Queen of the Ocean, who will extinguish the power forever. But to reach her, she must face fierce brigands, a nature sorceress, the treacherous Lord Eugene, and the raging fire…before her kingdom is scorched to bits.
    FRIENDLY FIRE is similar in tone and plot to Shannon Hale’s ENNA BURNING. I am currently working on a sequel (working title TREADING WATER).
    I am a student from ———- and an avid reader of Gail Carson Levine, Shannon Hale, and Michelle Harrison.
    Thank you for taking the time to consider my manuscript. Upon your request, I would be happy to send you a partial or complete manuscript. I look forward to your response.

    Miss Yulia ——- (surname removed for privacy)

    So, is it any good?

    • Erica Eliza says:

      Have you tried AgentQueryConnect? They’ve got a great query-based writing community. The blog Query Shark is good too. By the way I think Yulia is a beautiful name. And there’s a male Gale in Hunger Games so it’s not too out of style.

      • Gail Carson Levine says:

        I’m no expert on query letters, but I’d omit “Miss” when you sign. Just your name. And I’d include the first chapter instead of making the agent request it.

  6. Gail Carson Levine says:

    I asked my tech support, who is my husband David, about photos appearing with names as they often did in Blogspot. This is completely optional, but if you want to, you just have to follow his instructions below:

    The blog uses gravatars. Very easy to set up.

    Go to http://en.gravatar.com/.
    Establish a free account using the same email address as is used on the blog.
    Gravatar will send a confirmation email.
    Click on their confirmation email.
    Log in to Gravatar.
    Upload a photo or other image that will be the avatar.
    After a brief delay, the Gravatar will appear next to the comments on the blog.

  7. Hello!

    Also, I have written a story named UNTIL DEATH DO US PART (orignal name, I know. 🙂 ) It about a girl (Lark) who has cancer, but that’s not really the main plot of the story. I like to make sure that the cancer isn’t the focus of the story, because in real life, you have to move on. Live life the way it is.
    I’m worried, that in this novel, I’m doing too many things wrong. Killing off three of the characters, making her have cancer, having to deal with all of this. Also, well, *SPOLIER ALEART* Lark dies, and has to watch her. . . beau, I suppose, die, as well. Also her dad dies, and ugh! I do enjoy killing off people. . . in novels, that is. *END SPOLIERS* I’m worried that this is too cliche, maiming all of these characters, giving them scars for life. What do you think? Is it OK to kill a character for *ahem* fun?

    Also, Mrs. Gail, I would like to thank you for this blog – and the books! You have helped me ever so much about my Young Writers NaNoNovel, Viewpoint. Thanks to you, I finished it! You’ve been a huge help, and I can’t thank you enough. You – as well as some of my close writer friends – are my hero!

    • I forgot to add – I do really enjoy your post. I just tend to be very. . . insecure about my writing – style, diolouge and all.

    • Personally, I have absolutely no problem with killing characters. I do it all the time (does that sound evil?) There are, of course, a few things you have to watch out for.
      First, if the character you kill is the only one with a personality and good character development, it’s going to bug your readers and not in a good way. I read one book where the author wasn’t very good at making characters seem like real people, and the ones he killed we’re the only ones that were believably real. It left the story with a cast of hollow, zombie characters I didn’t care about and made me want to stop reading entirely. Don’t do that, it’s a bad idea.
      Secondly, you have to be sure to include some emotion when you kill off characters. Someone somewhere in your plot should feel sad, angry, confused, fearful, guilty, shocked, or even happy about that character’s death. Indifference is an option, but only if the character feeling that is cold or doesn’t know the person at all. You have to be careful with that too, because many heroes will feel really bad when someone dies, even if they don’t know them, mostly because they didn’t or couldn’t do anything about it. In the same book as the example above, the MC’s best friend dies in front of his eyes and he barely seems to notice. Seriously, they were crushed to death and the MC just kept walking. No emotion whatsoever was included. I wanted to throw the book across the room and never pick it up again even though I didn’t actually care about the character because of the lack of character development.
      If you pay attention to those things, you should be fine whenever you kill a character. In fact, when it’s done well I actually admire authors who aren’t afraid to kill characters because it shows they’re good enough at writing to carry on with the story.

      • Hi Leah, I’m going to try to help, but I’m not a pro, these are just my ideas:
        If you’ve ever read ENNA BURNING by Shannon Hale, you’ll remember that (SPOILER ALERT) Enna’s brother, Leifer, dies on the battlefield. She finds his body there, all charred up, and she curses herself for not stopping him from fighting. And the book goes something like, “but she knew he would never lace his boots again or shell walnuts or push his hair out of his eyes. He would never breathe again. She put a hand on his chest. It was still warm, but not with life.”
        There’s no all-out waterworks, I-want-to-die-I’m-so-heartbroken going on. Because then she finds the fire-speaking vellum and learns how to use fire, and the story gets on. But there’s a gentle way it’s written that shows she still misses him. Enna is by nature a very angry person, so she got mad when she realized she could’ve stopped his death. It’s not until a year later when she’s stopped to think about it that she finally cries over it.
        I kind of like killing characters (shame on me!). I like writing funerals because they show the culture of the world you’re writing. Plus, in extreme grief people tend to show their true colors and you get to know your characters a lot better. Try this story prompt:

        Max, a young goofy guy, is engaged to Ada, a soldier/Marine/Navy SEAL/whatever-kind-of-military-person you want her to be. Ada gets killed. Write the day of her funeral from Max’s perspective from the time he wakes up to the time he goes to sleep. Give Max a family, and write their reactions to the event too. Write in a few flashbacks and stuff if you want.

        • Thank you both! Your imput was very helpful.

          J. GARF: Thank you. Actually, the character who died was the character’s father. He died in a plane crash, which she did not see. Well, technically he got HURT in the plane crash and died in the hospital while she was there, but I believe it’s more or less the same thing.

          And, yes, I always make sure that my character’s have emotion. She cries, and remembers him every-so-often, thinking of her father and all the memories he gave her, but she moves on with life. Thank you!

          YULIA: Thank you for the prompt and everything it was very helpful. I have actually never read anything by Shannon Hale, but it sound interesting. Thank you for the imput. No, my characters shan’t feel like they’re going to die, though sometimes I am tempted. (I’m a sucker for drama in novels.) I recently only started. . . shall I say it. . . murdering my characters, but I know what it feels like. Or, at least, I have a good enough imagination that I can imagine it.

          So, again, thank you both!

  8. Okay, question/advice seeking.
    So, I’ve noticed that I have trouble making villains in my stories, and they’re not romances, so that can’t be a good thing.
    The thing is, I’ll have bad guys, like bullies and pirates and robbers and stuff, but they aren’t permanent. There is no lasting bad guy in, well, any of my stories.
    For the book I’m currently working on, I want to try a different approach than I usually do (like actually planning the book on paper instead of in my head). I was wondering if anyone had advice for creating a villain.
    That would be awesome.

    Thank you all,
    Rock On.

    • Song4myKing says:

      I’m not very experience at writing villains (I’m trying to figure it out for the first time too!). Two things I can think of to help: 1) study the villains in great books, and 2) figure out what your villain wants. Is he fighting for a cause or idea as in The Scarlet Pimpernel? Or after money? Or power, as in The Goose Girl, by Shannon Hale? Covering something up? Got a personal grudge against the MC or her family?
      I personally don’t care much for the villains who are simply messed up mentally and emotionally. Yeah, I know there are people like that, but in books it sounds like they were traced, cut out, and pasted in. Even in real life it’s rarely or never that simple.

      By the way, romances aren’t the only books that don’t need a villain. Think of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, Homecoming, The Secret Garden, etc. Those books have some antagonists (people hindering the MC) but no serious villain.

      • I personally loved how Shannon Hale wrote that wicked Selia in Goose Girl. My own villain, who I’m calling Tatiana for now, is just like her. My second villain is a ruthless wizard who kills anyone in his way. My third villain is a war-hungry king, and I have a pair of villains, a royal couple who shoot arrows.
        You know, there are a few stereotypical villains that work good (hope you read all the Bayern books so you know what I’m talking about):

        1: The sneaky lady. Like Selia, or the evil queen in Snow White
        2: The ruthless brute guy. Like Tumas in River Secrets.
        3: The dangerously seductive charmer. Like Sileph in Enna Burning.
        4: The man who acts out of revenge and his idea of “honor.” Like Captain Ledel in River Secrets.

        Of course, those are just a few types. There’s the harsh woman, like Olana in Princess Academy (also by Shannon Hale) or Gail Carson Levine’s Dame Olga. Sometimes it’s a dragon or an ogre. You could even do a fearsome woman like those old Greek Amazons. It’s totally up to you.
        Also, so cool that there’s yet another Shannon Hale reader on here! We all run in the same literary circles, it seems.

        • And I also hate lunatic villains. You can make one that’s wickedly evilly horrible, but he or she should still have a brain.
          One exception is the villain from Shannon Hale’s Book of a Thousand Days (if you read it, he’s so wicked that he sells his soul for the ability to become a wolf at night). Once I tried making a sort of lunatic villain, but it didn’t work. There’s a difference between being driven by motive and being crazy.
          For example, my friend wrote a really good (still unpublished) story. It’s about a Ukrainian athlete who wins a controversial medal, and she gets harassed, threatened, and bullied via social media for years. There’s a young American girl who hears this story and wants to help. So she logs onto this sports-discussion-forum and tells everyone to quit picking on the athlete. They brush her aside, but she keeps going. She gets an Instagram account and responds to every nasty comment. She’s so driven by motive that she sits all day behind her computer and yells at anyone who says anything mean. But she keeps her head on straight, if you know what I mean. When she’s not online she is a total sweetheart.
          So is that kind of helpful?

      • Chrissa Pedersen says:

        I attended a lecture by John Cusick entitled, “Bad Guys.”One thing that really resonated with me was that great villains have something about them that makes them a sympathetic character gone astray. The villain’s motivation should be something you can agree with, but you hate they way he/she executes it. The example that John Cusick gave was “Curiosity” gone excessive as in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Or your villain may want to be loved, is insecure, wants to right wrongs, but goes wrong attempting to do so. This way your villain becomes a real person and not a cookie cutter character that your reader won’t believe in.

        And thanks all for your comments on outlining, I am determined to try it on my next story. I’ve put one story on hold because as a panster I’ve written myself into a corner and don’t know how to get out. I realized I need more world building and plotting before I can continue.

  9. Yay you like my name Yulia! It means ‘young, beautiful, vibrant’. Cool!
    All right, I took the “Miss” off the letter. Is the rest all right?

  10. First off, I love the new theme for you blog! Congrats on successfully changing things up. 🙂
    Second, I love your advice to take something minor and then build up reasons that make it important/stressing.
    Third, I have a question that I’ve been batting around for a while: In two of my current story ideas (that I may bandy around until they mesh into one larger whole) the plot revolves around two neighboring countries (with different languages) that have been at war, in which the vast majority of characters only speak their native tongue. Both plots revolve to some extent around the ability of the main characters to speak both languages/act as translator/switch between the two languages. What I’m struggling with is how to convey two separate tongues on paper. Do I set one apart in italics throughout the entire book? That’s the only method I can think of, but it seems like a whole book with a bunch of italics would get pretty annoying. Also, whichever language was set in italics would seem like the “other” language, the more foreign language, when ideally I’d like both languages to be equally as prominent. My main characters will be fluent in both. Does anyone have any ideas about how to do this?

    • Well, I know that in webcomics they just put the words in brackets, [like this] or in braces, {like this} and if there is more than one foreign language being spoken you can use brackets, braces and these things to avoid confusion. I’m not sure if this would work in a book. Maybe you could use a slightly different font??? Honestly, I’d just go with the italics, it would probably be less trouble.

      • Uh, what just happened to my comment??? It italicized itself! Aside from braces and brackets you can use these , but I don’t remember what they’re called.

      • Thanks, Elisa! I guess I could do brackets for one language and greater than/lesser than signs for the other language. That’s probably the best way to do it, and I hadn’t thought of it so thank you! 🙂 I’m just wondering how the narration would mesh with the two languages. If it’s from the POV of a girl named Cara, for example, from country C, then would it seem strange to the reader if I put her own dialogue in the language of country C in brackets? I guess I could do narration in black then each language in a different font color, but that sounds more headache-inducing than anything else.

        • Hypergraphia says:

          Honestly, Jaina, I think if your two foreign languages are different enough, no one will confuse them. For example, Ms. Levine has many languages in Ella Enchanted and you can always tell which species is talking. Words in Ayoran start and end in the same vowel, words in the giant language have different capitals in the word and lots of s’s and n’s, and you’d never confuse them.

    • Song4myKing says:

      Not knowing your story of course, my opinion is that it would be simplest and least confusing to just include a note in your speaker tags. (“…,” she said in Italian). If they are speaking language C in country C, then there would be no need for a note. But when you get to the back-and-forth between countries and languages, you would just include a little note when the first person speaks in a dialogue, or whenever the language switches. I think I’ve seen this done well, but I can’t think where.
      What bugs me is where an author constantly sprinkles words and phrases of the foreign language into dialogue, and then has to keep explaining what was said. But that’s almost what was happening in Ella Enchanted, and it amused me rather than annoying me. So maybe it’s not so much what you do as how well you do it. Whatever you decide, do it carefully. Then get someone to read it and tell you if it feels awkward or smooth.

    • I know that in Shannon Hale’s FOREST BORN (yes, bringing Shannon on in again, sorry guys), there’s a flashback scene that’s all in italic, and I didn’t get bothered.
      I was writing a story about a girl (Amber) who’s half German. Whenever she gets really mad, she starts speaking German. So here’s a scene I wrote:

      “What do you mean, he’s not coming back?” said Kira. (Kira is Amber’s bilingual friend). “He said he was coming back!”
      Amber said something in German that sounded like a curse.
      “I’m sorry, ladies, he won’t be returning,” said Mark.
      “This is inakzeptabel!” Amber shook her fists at the man and sputtered a sequence in German.
      “What did he say?” Tanya asked Kira. (Tanya only speaks English).
      “She says it’s unacceptable and he will be meeting the devil if he doesn’t tell her why Jack isn’t coming back.”

      It’s pretty rough but if it helps, I’m glad I could be useful.

  11. Gail,
    I’m so excited to have found your blog after checking out your book “Writer to Writer” from my local public library! Can’t wait to dig in and learn all I can about the writing craft! I’ve already begun with some of your writing prompts! Thanks again so much for all you do to share your knowledge!!

  12. Also, I have my own question. I’m a 16-year-old short, skinny, fair-skinned, brown-eyed brunette, calm and a little quirky, and so are all my MCs. I can’t picture them any other way, but will that be annoying that all my protagonists are almost the same?

    • Depending on the story. Are the stories simalur? Or are they all different?
      What may help, is that if you use pinterest you could search a picture of a – let’s say – blonde haired, blue eyes, tall, girl, then a blonde haired, blue eyed girl shows up that you would like to use popped up, then use her! Maybe you could even print that picture, and pin it on the wall as you write. It may help whenever you think of her.

      • One is a medieval mystery, one is a fantasy (like Snow White), one is a Cinderella story, one is a historical account of the 1990s, and one is a retelling of Madame Butterfly.
        I tried making one girl blonde, but she doesn’t feel the same. Is that weird? She seems different because her hair color changed. I guess I’ve always pictured my characters to look like me, and any who don’t just feel…funny.
        I know that Gail and Shannon (my two favorite authors) have characters who don’t look the same. Ella’s tiny and dark-haired, Aza’s tall and broad and dark-haired, Addie’s tall and thin and brunette, some of the princesses in the Princess Tales are blonde. In Shannon’s books, Isi is blonde, Enna is black-haired, Dasha is a redhead, Rin and Miri are brunette, Maisie is Hispanic, Dashti is Mongolian, etc, etc. I’m going to try to vary my characters’ appearances a little and hope I can make my brunette girl grow into a blonde 😀

        • Erica Eliza says:

          I just let my characters come into my head however they want to look. Black, blonde, short, whatever feels right for them. If nothing pops into my head I make them different from the last few characters so they stand out.

        • Hmm . . I see your dilema.
          Alright, let’s try this. Writing prompt time!:
          You are a sixteen year old girl, and you want to do something DRASTIC in your life. Something that your mother will allow, of course, but what? Then you get the idea! Your hair! You’re mother wouldn’t mind at all, or at least very much, if you DYE your hair. So, after you get permission from your mother, you go dye your hair. You go from brown to blonde. Can you see it? You look in a mirror. (Here, you look in the mirror yourself, then close your eyes and imagine it. We writers are good at that.)

          If this still doesn’t work, then try something else. Write! Write the whole story, every single detail of this blonde brunette. How tall is she? How long is her hair? Is her skin fair or dark? Does she draw on herself? etc. etc. Perhaps you will get the idea in your head.

    • Song4myKing says:

      I don’t think so, so long as the stories are all different. But to switch it up a little, maybe you could focus on one of your quirks and exaggerate it for one character, and intensify one of your hobbies for another. Or imagine what you wish you could change about yourself and take the opportunity! Say, freckles, which is what one of my friends used to wish for (and make her love them!) or an amazing ability to climb trees and cliffs.

    • Martina Preston says:

      I have that same problem, Yulia! I always hear that it is good to have yourself shown through your character, but I always write my MC EXACTLY LIKE ME (except I change hair and eye and skin color)

  13. I have yet another problem with my writing, and it’s a tough one. Are you up for helping?
    I want to write a biography of a sportswoman. She’s inspired a bunch of book ideas, and I want to do this as a kind of thank-you-for-making-me-a-writer-and-I’m-just-really-interested-in-your-life-and-I-want-to-tell-your-story.
    The problem is, her name is Katarina, and she’s a tall, expressive brunette. One of my books is about a tall, expressive brunette chocolate-lover named Katarina. I want to write both books. If I made my MC a tall, expressive brunette chocolate-lover named Layla or Ashley or Angelina (my three runner-up names), would people still figure out that the girl is really Katarina?
    Also, would it seem weird that I write a very in-depth biography of somebody I don’t know? And will my computer get confiscated by the FBI because I spend too much time googling this girl (seriously, every second I’m not on gailcarsonlevine.com or squeetus I’m checking out her official website, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram page). It’s almost like I’ve gotten to know her, and my writing is sensitive to her. When she’s really upset, I intensify the emotion. Does that make me seem freaky?
    Thanks for all your previous help, you’ll make a writer out of me yet.
    PS I’m not a spy!

    • Erica Eliza says:

      If you’re too attached to both Katarinas, you don’t have to change the name. I’m guessing your Katarina was inspired by the sportswoman Katarina. If you’re Internet-stalking someone you know in real life to be menacing, that’s bad, but what you’re doing just sounds like celebrity following and no one will care. People write biographies of famous sportswomen all the time. I don’t know how the whole authorization thing would work if you got it published, but you only write nice things about your heroes, so it sounds like you’re good.

      • Yeah, I adore Katarina the athlete. I would never say anything mean about her. In fact, there were some people doing that to her, and so my friend and I wrote that story about the Ukrainian athlete who was getting bullied online.
        Thank you!

      • One problem in my story is that I kind of made real-life people into villains. Katarina the athlete had a rival called Amber. So I made this lady called Amber who’s a real pain-in-the-behind, and she looks and talks and acts like the real Amber.
        I tried changing her name to Amberlynn, but she’s still very similar to the real Amber, and she has a grudge against Katarina. Any suggestions?

  14. Now I have yet another writing problem. Seems like I have more problems in my writing than a novel has letters. You guys are so helpful and I’m sorry to burden you with all my troubles, but I kind of need help.
    I’m doing a rewrite of Phantom of the Opera. In the original story, there was a disfigured man called the Phantom who wore a white mask and haunted the opera house, a young Swedish singer called Christine, her love interest Raoul, and a singer named Carlotta who was jealous of Christine.
    In my version, the MC is a Jew from Czechoslovakia called Erica, and the story is set during World War II. The Nazis take over her village and put her family in a concentration camp. She’s the only one to escape, and that makes the Nazis furious. They put out an international warning for her arrest.
    Erica escapes to London and takes the name Christine to cover her identity. She dyes her hair, wears a white mask, and joins the London Opera. In other words, I turned the Phantom and Christine into one character. She’s an amazing singer, so the stage manager gives her the lead role in Madame Butterfly (my favorite opera) instead of Carlotta. That makes Carlotta jealous, and she tries to get Erica fired. Et cetera, et cetera.
    In the original story there was no escaping the Nazis, so now here I’ve added a bunch of material to the beginning of the book. Should I write it as the beginning of the story, or should I write up her back-story in flashbacks?
    Thank you,

    • Oh, and the name Erica isn’t taken from Erica Eliza, it’s from the Phantom’s name in the original story, Erik. Though I think the name Erica Eliza is a beautiful name.

      • Hypergraphia says:

        Yulia, that sounds awesome! I absolutely adore The Phantom of the Opera and your twist sounds great. As for your backstory issue: have you thought about doing a little bit of flashback at the beginning and then working it into the story? Almost like Maggie Stiefvater’s The Scorpio Races (if you haven’t read Maggie Stiefvater, trust me, you need to)-in it she has a short prologue where she tells about an important day from one of her MC’s childhood, then the book is present day, with some more background sprinkled in. This might be a little bit harder since your background sounds a little more comprehensive and key. However, what could also work is the way Shannon Hale did Isi’s background in The Goose Girl (I think most of us read her work), where she showed only the important parts before going to the story, but it was more comprehensive. If you would prefer having it at the beginning, it could definitely work as long as the shift from running from Nazis to the opera house isn’t too jolting to the reader. I hoped this helped and made sense. Good luck in all your writing ventures!

        • Thanks, I think I’ll do a few chapters of running-from-the-Nazis action before we get to the opera house.
          Ooh, and another Shannon reader! I love when we know exactly what each other is talking about.
          So, day 1 of Operation Phantom begins now 😀

          • Oh, and thanks for the support, you guys are all very encouraging and helpful. Now I’ve got to log off of here, vanish like a Phantom, and get cracking on my story!

  15. Hi, So I was wondering if anyone has had any problems with thinking about the audience when you write. I have kind of the opposite problem as many of the others who have commented here. I really like writing about characters who are different from me. I have mostly written about adults in historical fiction, but I am a teenager and my family thinks that I should write about angsty teens and depression and things because that’s what some writing contests in my age group are about. It’s not like I can’t write teenagers, but I would prefer to use my own ideas rather than the ones my mom gives me. Any suggestions?

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      I’m adding your question to my list, but it will take me a while to get to (months, probably). Can anyone weigh in now?

    • Amelia: Gail's #1 Fan says:

      I kind of had the same problem. I’m 11, and I’m writing a story about a teenager. So I read a bunch of stories with teenage main characters and tried to sort of find the character out of that. I’d suggest you read a lot of books with adult characters and see how they’re written. Does that help at all?

      • Thanks Amelia, I was really struggling more with whether I should choose to write about teenagers or keep writing about adults, but you are right that I should probably read more books about adults, although I do that already.

    • I write characters between 12 and 26 usually, a little younger and a little older than myself. And honestly, not all teens are like that. I’d like to think I’m pretty practical. There is ZERO drama in my life (okay, maybe there is a little, but only my the barest, teensiest little bit. And no boy related stuff, I’m saving that until I’m at LEAST 18!) Here’s how I look at it. If I live to be 80, which is a good age to reach, I’ve already lived a about one fifth of my life! That means I don’t have time for meaningless drama and general ridiculousness. I know this makes me sound over-the-top, but if I actually want to do something with my life, I’d better get busy doing it! I have between fifteen or twenty years left before my sight and hearing start to fail (possibly shorter, I’m already going blind–more or less), and then arthritis and whatnot…and that’s only if I live to get that old, there really is no knowing when we will leave this earth. We don’t have an unlimited amount of time. Our clocks are ticking. And I want to get my heavy lifting (so to speak) done before my body starts giving out. Which means I don’t have time to be frivolous and depressed (certainly I know depression is not always avoidable, but if you surround yourself with positive things that you love, you have a better chance). Also, being embarrassed about itty bitty things is a waste of time, especially when you don’t actually have that much time. You’re much happier if you just let it go.
      Something that REALLY bugs me about teen novels is about how self centered the teens are. THE WORLD DOES NOT REVOLVE AROUND YOU! The sooner a character realizes this, the sooner I will like them. Also, thing like high school, boys, drugs etc. Ugh! No, whether you are popular or not won’t really matter, whether a particular boy likes you or not probably won’t matter either, not once you’re older and get into the real world. Really, the only thing that matters in high school is your grades, and even that can have little effect later on, depending on how you conduct yourself, and the sooner a teen realizes this, the happier, and less depressed, they will be. So basically, do what you enjoy; keep high standards; don’t let the little things bother you; realize that you are not the center of the universe; don’t take time to be embarrassed because it is seldom worth agonizing over a tear in your shirt or spinach in your teeth; don’t let drama antagonize you; and think larger scale. I would like to see a teen character who did these things just ONCE!
      I guess the point is that not all teens are angsty and depressed, and I think that stereotype is demoralizing. If kids take those kind of characters as role models, we will have a LOT of messed up kids. So if you do end up writing for teens about teens, please, please don’t get sucked into the “meaningless drama” black hole that is devouring YA books these days. Have an truly important event occur rather than some girl trying to get the popular guy.

      Sorry, about the rant, but teen stereotypes really rile me up. I hope I was able to help at least a little.

      • Thank you for the impressive rant. It did help me, and I find clichés about teenagers extremely irritating too, for what it’s worth. Actually one of the reasons I read so much adult fiction and therefore write about adults is because I don’t really enjoy a lot of YA fiction. It think it is always better to avoid straight tropes with no sort of variation on them at all.

        • Okay, bringing Auntie Shannon into the mix once again, but most of her characters aren’t very self-centered. Shannon knows how to make really likeable MCs.
          I like flawed MCs, but not self-centered ones. It’s okay if they’re quirky, or weird, or awkward, but I hate the ones who are so wrapped up in themselves that they don’t even bother to help the other characters.

          • Gail Carson Levine says:

            Hooray for Elisa’s rant!

            Just saying, though, decrepitude may be more decades away than you think, says this healthy, active old lady!

          • Oops, Mrs Levine, that’s not what I meant to imply. I’m not afraid of getting old, it’s something we all do, if we live long enough, but 80 years isn’t actually all that much if you pause to think of it, so you shouldn’t waste time over drama and unimportant things that, when you’re older you will regret. I’m trying to live so that when I look back I won’t shake my head over all the little nitpicky things that stole my time and happiness, and made me less productive. And no, I’m not implyng that old people are too weak and deaf and blind to do anything, but it is a fact that, before you are even forty your sight and hearing are already starting to deteriorate, and your body can’t take as much wear as you are accustomed to giving it. My dad has been finding this out over the past couple of years. He’s only forty, but he’s already losing his hearing and his eyesight (he had 20/20 vision just three years ago). He’s starting to slow down. Is he stopping? No, of course not! So basically all I’m saying that I want to make full use of what I have while I still have it. That’s all, no disrespect meant to the older generation. You guys are wonderful.

  16. Hi guys,
    So my Phantom story is going well and I’m just so thrilled that I had to tell you all THANK YOU SO MUCH! You are sooooooooooo much help. I’m dedicating my first book “to all the helpful writers of Gail Carson Levine’s online writing club”

  17. Erica Eliza says:

    Just finished Stolen Magic. I love finally reading the story you’ve been teasing us about for all this time! I guessed the thief, but got the hiding place wrong, as well as some other details. I’m a pleasant mix of surprised and satisfied.

    Also, I need a dragon.

  18. Ms. Levine,
    Thank you so much for making a blog post about my question! (I am the same person as KLC) You are my favorite author and I will use this post to help with my new book The Spyglass Shard.
    Also, I read Stolen Magic and it was awesome! I did a book report on it. Thanks again!

  19. Kenzi Anne says:

    Hey Gail! So I was just wondering–is there a way to make your new blog more mobile friendly? I used to be able to read the old one on my phone, but this one becomes very difficult to read because it’s basically just the desktop view crammed onto my tiny screen! It was just a thought–if not I will survive, I’m sure. 🙂 Thanks!!

  20. Kenzi Anne says:

    Also, a quick question for y’all: I have a story narrated in 1st person POV, and I’m having a difficult time communicating my character’s gender. She’s a girl, but is 12-ish, acts very boyish, and has a unisex name that is more common for boys–how can I get across that this character is a girl? It becomes clear later, but I don’t want my readers going through most of the book thinking she’s a guy and then getting confused when I call her one of the character’s older sister. Any thoughts?

    • Song4myKing says:

      You could have her mention about something about herself in comparison or contrast to “other girls,” or “most girls.”

      Or you could have someone call her a generic girl name, like “Sis.” (When I was little, there was a man who enjoyed children but couldn’t remember names. So he called all of us little girls “Betsy.”) You could use something like this for character development, too, by showing how she reacts to it!

      • Or you could have someone just go “You there, girl!” Also, no matter how boyish a girl is, she is still a girl, and there are major differences. One extremely foolproof way of getting her gender across is to mention that it’s her time of the month. Honestly, it’s not that hard to separate the genders, just mention once or twice early on and voila, there you are.

    • You don’t have to do this at all, but maybe since she seems so easily confused, someone could actually mistake her for a boy, and she could blow up at him/her. I’ve seen it done well before, and it really fixes the event and along with it her gender in the mind of the reader.

  21. Hey Gail (or do you prefer Mrs. Levine…?)
    So I’m writing a story where the main character, Princess Guinevere (yes, it’s a King Arthur story), is in love with one of her father’s knights, Sir Lancelot, but then her father arranges a marriage between her and King Arthur. At first she hates Arthur, but then she starts to fall in love with him, but she’s still in love with Lancelot. Do you have any advice on how to handle love triangles?

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      I prefer Gail. I’ve never written a love triangle, so I’m not sure how I’d handle one. Other people may have ideas, though. I’m about to upload my next post, so your question may get lost. Can you ask it again there?

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