P. U. S.

On February 15, 2015, Melissa Mead (formerly carpelibris on the old blog) wrote, I’m having trouble figuring out who the story I’m telling is really about. (Gail, it’s the version of “Sleeping Beauty” that I told you about at the book festival.) It’s not the title character. I thought it was the Eldest Fairy’s story, but then the Youngest Fairy started to come to the forefront. The usual “Who has the most to lose?” trick isn’t working, because there are different ways to “lose.”

Any suggestions for figuring out whose story this is?

Michelle Dyck responded with this: Whose story is the most interesting/exciting? (I guess that’s pretty similar to the “Who has the most to lose?” question.) Whose personality or voice grabs you the most?

Just a random thought: could you compromise and pick a few POV characters? Or do something like the movie HOODWINKED, in which the same story was told multiple times from multiple points of view, and each one fleshed out the tale a little more. That might be cumbersome in book form (or might be better suited to a series rather than a single book). But maybe that idea could be modified.

Melissa came back with: That’s the problem. It’s a tie!

This is just a short story, so I don’t think there’s room for the Hoodwinked treatment. (I did have fun trying to pick that movie apart, though!)

I had trouble choosing the POV in Fairest, and I tried out three–zhamM, Ijori, and an omniscient narrator–and wrote hundreds of pages I couldn’t use. Finally I figured out how I could write from the first-person POV of Aza, my Snow White character, even while she was out cold from the poisoned apple. The problem with zhamM and Ijori as narrators was that they weren’t present for a lot the story. The trouble I had with the omniscient voice was that I couldn’t resist dipping into the minds and hearts of everybody, and the story slowed to a slug’s pace.

But for those of us suffering from POV Uncertainty Syndrome (PUS!), an omniscient narrator may be the way to go. If we do, we can delve into the thoughts and feelings of those characters who particularly fascinate us, in Melissa’s case, the youngest and oldest fairies. Of course, we have to avoid my failing of getting too interested in everybody and losing control of our story.

Another advantage of trying an omniscient narrator is that it can be diagnostic; we may naturally find ourselves dwelling more on one character than the others, and, voila!, without tearing out a single strand of hair, we’ve discovered our POV character. We can switch then and there to that POV and clean up the omniscient voice when we revise. In Fairest, the omniscient narrator came right before I figured out that Aza should be my POV character, so it worked for me.

Similar to an omniscient POV is the POV of a character who is not our MC. We could choose the median fairy, for example, the one halfway between youngest and oldest, to tell the story. She wouldn’t be as impartial as an out-of-the-tale narrator or as partial as the oldest or youngest, because she’d be on the periphery of the action. A magnificent example of this kind of narrator is Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby (high school and up). And if you want to read prose that’s marvelous enough to cause heart palpitations, this is the book for you.

My idea with zhamM as narrator was to have him be in love with Aza and have it be a doomed love, because he’s a gnome and she’s human. But I didn’t know how to work him into all the scenes I needed. If I had decided to keep him as my POV character, I would have had to make the story belong to him, with many of the “Snow White” events happening in the background.

Mostly, I’ve gone with the obvious choice of MC: Cinderella; Snow White; in my Princess Tales with Sleeping Beauty, the “Princess on the Pea” princess, the “Golden Goose” lad, and so on. But I didn’t in A Tale of Two Castles, which is sort of a retelling of “Puss In Boots.” The miller’s son is a character, and there are many cats, but Elodie, my MC, and the dragon detective Meenore don’t exist in the original fairy tale. Since Aza, Meenore, and the ogre are at the center of my plot, I had to invent a new story arc and many scenes.

As I think about “Sleeping Beauty,” I notice how full of feeling the story is. Sleeping Beauty is an infant, but her parents experience horror when they first hear she’s going to die young. After the terrible gift is ameliorated, they still have to wrap their minds around the hundred-year sleep.

The oldest fairy is mired in rage. She may have other emotions as well, like loneliness, jealousy, and hurt for being left out. The youngest fairy may be frightened, because she’s going against an elder. She may be worried, too, that she’s going to mess up the spell. She could be ambitious, a meddler, a very kind soul.

When we choose our POV character, we can decide which feelings we want to explore from the inside out. This is like Michelle Dyck’s wondering about which character is the most interesting, in this case most interesting from an emotional standpoint.

We can ask which character is most like us and which is most different. Then we can decide if we want the security of the familiar or the risk of the unknown. (Both choices are fine.)

Here’s another metric we can use: Which character is most likely to be talky inside her head? A character who isn’t introspective may be more challenging than one who is. Do we want that challenge?

Also, one of them, may lie to herself about herself. If we’re in her mind, we have to see past her self-deception. Do we want to always be on our guard?

We can try one way and then another. As I’ve said many times, writing isn’t efficient. Wasted pages are a small price to pay for the right POV.

I’ve never written from the POV of a non-human. Regardless of which POV is chosen, it’s fun to consider how a fairy might think. She has to think in words or we can’t write her, but can we introduce an element or two into her thought process that will reflect her alien-ness?

When Melissa Mead first posted her question, I wrote a note to myself that I still think is worth thinking about, and it was that maybe this should be a novel as Michelle Dyck suggested and not a short story. It’s possible that the idea is too complex for short story treatment. Or not.

Here are four prompts:

∙ Write a scene from “Sleeping Beauty” in the voice of an omniscient narrator. Delve into the thoughts and feelings of everybody, even the baby.

∙ Write the story of “Aladdin” from the POV of the genie of the lamp.

∙ Using “Aladdin” as backdrop, tell the story of the genie and his imprisonment in the lamp. This means moving away from the original fairy tale and creating something new.

∙ Write the thoughts of any one of the “Sleeping Beauty” fairies when she first sees the baby princess. Give the thoughts an inhuman quality. Do this one way, then another, and another.

∙ Try “Sleeping Beauty” from the POV of a minor fairy, who has opinions but is more observer than actor in the story. You can make her a busybody, so she insinuates herself into all the major moments.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. MisplacedPoetry says:

    Interesting! I like to switch views throughout my stories because I have a lot to say, but I try to stick to two “main characters” but since I’m usually a, leading up to a battle, b. in a battle. or c, recovering them from battle, I have to resort to using other people.
    Which is fun, since I have to make each of the character’s voices recognizable.

  2. This is an excellent post, and it touches on one of my most infuriating problems: correct POV.
    I do have two questions. The first will sound strange, but I really need help with it.

    Q 1. How on earth does one describe a mandarin collar? I have a character who is particularly fond of wearing mandarin collars, but it is a fantasy world in which the Chinese are not featured. How do I describe her clothing, or more specifically, her collar. This is perplexing, and has troubled me for a long time.

    Q 2. I’m working on a Cinderella retelling. I want a Cinderella with some spunk. I don’t want one that takes abuse just out of the goodness of her heart without a single rebellious thought. This is rather unrealistic. I am sure there are one or two people who could do that, but not a lot, and besides, that would make a boring character. So how can I give her a some fire while she still serves her step-family. She cannot be cursed, as Ella in Ella Enchanted. I decided that early on.

    Any help on either question will be appreciated. Thank you!

    • Maybe she has her own reasons for staying. I have a Cinderella story called “Promises and Pastry” (It’s in Sword & Sorceress #28) where Cinderella LIKES cooking, is proud of her skill in the kitchen, and is furious at the scheming fairy godmother whose plans threaten to mess up her career path.

    • Answer to Q2 maybe she could sneak out every night to complain to her freinds or go to parties things like that. Or play tricks on her step sister or mother

    • Don’t know if this will help, but I watched a movie that was a spin-off of Cinderella one time (sorry, can’t remember the name of it). And in the movie, the reason she stayed was because she needed her stepmother’s money to pay for college. So maybe your character needs something from the stepmother, and that’s what forces her to stay.
      Hope that helps.

  3. In answer to your second question, if your story is from Cinderella’s POV, you could show her rebellious thoughts towards the evil step-family, and then go either one of two ways. There is the goody-two -shoes, which I know you don’t want but it could be interesting, where she suppresses her mean thoughts because her stepmother is the woman her father loved or something like that (kind of weak, I know). There is a more realistic route, where she thinks of running away, or speaking out against the stepfamily, but she doesn’t have anywhere else to go. You could cement this by thinking of a worse fate that happens to runaways in your world( Homelessness, starvation, etc.), or you could think of some kind of tie that Cinderella has to the house, like it was her father’s dying wish that she inherit something that her stepmother now has, or the property itself( it doesn’t need to be as dramatic as a dying wish, but you get the picture). Hating herself for not having the courage to do anything also works. With either option, you could also have little passive-agressive tricks that she plays on her abusers so that she’s not completely submissive.

  4. Great post Ms. Levine! I never really thought about how it’s better to have a story that incorporates a lot of emotions. I realized that my story is too wrapped up in my MC. It’s a struggle because I started out my story as a sort of fanfiction-y entire life history.

    I will probably try something out with the Aladdin prompts. After watching my sister’s school play where The Genie was played by an adorable little girl, I’ve been thinking about experimenting with different Genies.

    I also have a question about my main story, about my MC. I want to keep the life-story part, where it starts at her birth and goes on, but that really waters down the whole point of the plot. And I’m so wary about making her a Mary Sue that I downplay her realistically-already-small role in the climax down to next to nothing. Long story short…no story. Any tips, commentors of this fine blog? Thanks. 🙂

  5. Erica Eliza says:

    There’ s a version of the story out there where the youngest fairy is away for a while, but when the princess falls, she’s summoned back to the kingdom by a dwarf in seven league boots. Instead of simply following the dwarf back home, she gets in a chariot pulled by dragons. This all happens in a few sentences. I always thought her story needed to be told. I mean, here’s this fairy riding around with DRAGONS, and we spend our time on some girl sleeping?

  6. When you say that you haven’t written from a non- human point of view, that isn’t true.
    I’d like to point out that in your book “Ever” some of the chapters are from Olus’s point of view, and he’s a god. And in your fairy books, some of them are written from the fairies’ point of view.

  7. I’m considering doing a Cinderella story too. In my version the stepmother’s mansion is surrounded by a high wall, so Cinders, as she’s called, can’t go anywhere. She’s a rebel all the way: she fills the stepmother’s bathtub with the water that she used to mop the floor, she puts jalapeno peppers in the dinner so her stepsisters start hacking up their lungs at the table, she tightens the seams on their dresses so they think that they’re getting fat right before the ball.
    So the wall could be part of why she can’t leave. As for question 1, you could say that her collar stands up and opens at the front. It’s the only tip I can think of.

    PS Thank you Hypergraphia for the overview of Phantom of the Opera. I have to ask, is it along the lines of Shannon Hale’s Books of Bayern or the Harry Potter series in terms of violence? If so that should be all right.

  8. girl_artist says:

    My POV for my novel I’m writing is first-person omniscient. The story mostly flows in my main character’s thoughts, words and actions. Sometimes I write a little about the thoughts and actions of her friends, so sometimes I’m third-person omniscient. I think it’s good to go mostly with the main character but then sometimes show what’s going on with the other characters, so that the reader has a better understanding of what’s going on.
    My characters go their separate ways, and it’s very complex. I have a lot of characters. I’ll show what the other characters did through dialogue.
    What do you think? Is this a good structure for how the story will flow?

  9. Erica Eliza says:

    My, Cinderella is popular today. I’m just finishing up a Cinderella/Rapunzel story myself. It was inspired by a blog prompt about Rapunzel from forever ago. I had other books I was going to work on, but I opened that file by mistake and now it’s 29,000 words long. The story’s close to finished, which I’m happy about because I’ve had it planned forever and I’ve moved faster on it than any project before, but I’m a little disappointed that it won’t be normal book length. I’m not looking to be published yet, so that’s not a problem, but it’s weird to write something that’s much longer than a short story but too little to be a novel. I have a checklist hanging above my computer where I write the date every time I finish a book. Should I still count this as a book, or will I disgrace my checklist by doing that?

    • Song4myKing says:

      Are you nearly finished writing the first draft or nearly finished revising? I found that when I went back over my book, I ended up building up the story. Adding bits here and there, explaining things better, adding description where needed, throwing in memories and backstory to make the main story more real, even adding twists to the plot. It got much, much larger than it had been. Some was needed, some became a needed part of the story, and some I’ve had to cut back out.

      • A revised draft is a lot shorter than a first draft. Once I started out with a novel of 154 manuscript pages and ended up with 97 once I was done editing.

        • Song4myKing says:

          Wow! That’s some serious editing!
          So far (but I’m not very experienced) I find that my first drafts feel sketchy and odd, and need something more, which I try to add in revision. I take stuff out, but I end up adding more in. It’s not till later revisions that the page count starts coming back down.

  10. What do you think the best way to go about describing a character is? When the character is first introduced to the story should I have a paragraph about them or should I talk about little things as the story goes on?

      • I’d put in a little at first so that the reader gets l some sense of what they look like, though you don’t need to go into detail. Things like posture and gestures are good. “She stood very straight, with her chin lifted. She did not turn her head even a fraction of an inch during the entire interview, but her eyes kept darting to the sides, as though she expected someone would pounce on her from behind at any moment. Clothing can be described too, if it is bright, or unusual, or simply ties to what profession the character is in. “She wore the common blue and grey of the city watch.” Hair or other features can be mentioned, but I only do it if they are prominent features. One character has long, bluish hair. That’s a prominent feature, so I mention how long and glossy it is, and how its color seems to change with the light. Another thing to do is compare the prominent features to something else (do NOT go overboard with this). I have a character whose nose is large and misshapen, and very red, because he has a perpetual cold. I compare it to a beet. I do not recommend giving eye color right out, because few people notice eye color. With some people the color of their eyes are prominent, but this is not usual. I remember there was a man whose face I liked becuase he had the most gorgeous, soft, kind, angel eyes. They were his most prominent feature. I looked at his eyes every chance I got, but I didn’t actually catch what color they were. I know they were light, but whether they were blue, or green, grey or hazel I didn’t notice. (I know that’s a weird confession, but hey, I’m a writer, I watch people.) Later one in your story you can give more details little bit by little bit. After the first time, only describe clothing if it is important to the plot. If your character is going to be hiding in the woods, mention that she is wearing browns and greens to fit in, or, if you want, bright red and blues, so that she stands out and is caught. Or if she is going mountain climbing later, she could be prepared and wear trousers, or unprepared, and mention several scenes ahead that she is wearing a full, light colored, lacy, brocaded, embroidered, beaded-and-sequined gown fit for dancing in and little else. Hope I helped a little.

        • I describe hair color, height and build, and a little about them. Sometimes I mention the sound of their voice or what they’re wearing. Like this:

          The door swung open and in came Liza. Her hair was a rich brown, and her dark eyes lent an Oriental flair to her pale complexion. Her loose purple mesh blouse complimented her petite, curvy figure and echoed the exoticness of her Spanish-accented voice.

          I also like to kind of kill two birds with one stone—describe two characters at once. Like this:
          Liza and Ada looked nothing like each other. Ada was tall and straight, with flowing blonde hair that shined like gold. In contrast, Liza was short and curvy, and her brown hair was chopped short around her face. Liza’s exotic mesh blouse made Ada’s cotton t-shirt seem plain.

          Or you can describe through action and dialogue:
          “Hi there!” Liza’s voice was spicy with a Spanish accent. “Isn’t it a fine day?”
          “Very fine.” Ada’s words sounded like water rushing over rocks.
          Liza ran a hand through her short dark hair. “The farmer Pete said it’s going to rain.”
          “That doesn’t bode well for the party.” Ada pouted, her beautiful lips curling into a scowl.
          “You can say that again.” Liza stood up and brushed off her purple mesh blouse. “I’ll bet they’ll cancel it.”

          Hope it’s helpful!

          P.S. What do you think of the title FROM STRAW TO GOLD for my sports biography? A little fairytale in real life.

          • Song4myKing says:

            I think it makes a difference if your MC already knows the person, or is meeting her for the first time. If she knows the new character, little details on along (like Yulia’s last example) generally feel more natural, although I think Elisa is right – there should be something early on to have something to picture. If she’s just meeting the person, she’ll notice a lot of details that are all new to her (like Yulia’s first two examples).

  11. So…this isn’t exactly a question, I just wanna know what everyone else thinks.
    Everyone seems to be so down on adverbs. You know, your writing is supposed to show, don’t tell and whatnot. I’ve struggled with this, because I love adverbs, I use them frequently in everyday speech. Gingerly, extremely, reluctantly, particularly…I adore adverbs. So I thought and thought and I finally came up with a theory: adverbs are undesirable when writing in third person, but I think it would be fine to use them a little more often when writing first person, because adverbs are a normal part of speech. When you are talking, you say things like “This is extremely undesirable.” Or “I don’t particularly like this shade of blue.” That’s normal English for you. Also you can use as many adverbs as you like if you have a character who likes using them. I love using adverbs, I say “quite” and “rather” all the time.

    What do you guys think? Am I right, or wrong. I want your honest opinions, so if you think I’m wrong, go ahead and say so. I just want to know if this makes any sense to anybody else.

    • Song4myKing says:

      Something I heard recently really clicked with me: A writer told how she once discovered that, while she was doing fine with the “showing” thing, she was at the same time using all the “telling” words. This would include adverbs, I think, as well as the emotion words – terror, sympathy, delight, etc. Those are all juicy, delicious words and I think most writers get a charge out of words like that. But when writing story, we have to show terror without writing “terror.”

      You may be right that you can be more free in first person. I love writing dialogue for that reason – I can finally let loose and say it like people talk – all the clichés and everything. But I think you’ve still got to watch it. Maybe I’m weird this way, but I sometimes get quite annoyed at first person narrators, when they go overboard on the casualty thing. Mainly when they show off an over-sized ego, but I think going too far with the adverbs could get old after a while too. Of course, you could always have a MC who loves words and has a quirky habit of finding a word to describe every occasion!

      Whatever the case, I’m usually not too concerned about it when I write my first draft. If that’s the way to catch what I mean, I throw it in, and worry later about weather or not it stays.

  12. I see nothing wrong with them in dialogue. Like you said, that’s how people talk. And they can be useful elsewhere, as long as you use them to add something new to the sentence and not just repeat the verb. Like, um…”I love you,” she said cruelly. Or something like that.

  13. Chrissa Pedersen says:

    I love the acronym PUS!! And the suggestion to write as an omniscient narrator when confronted with PUS is fantastic. I personally tend toward a close third-person POV since it’s my MC who speaks to me first, and tells me to start writing his/her’s/it’s story. I can see how multiple POV’s may NOT be a good idea for a short story, but I was so intrigued by Rick Riordon’s 39 CLUES – MAZE OF BONES. He switched POV chapter to chapter, always letting the reader know by a subtle clue which character was taking the reins of the story. As more characters are introduced, more POV’s appear. The plot-line was seamless since each character could tell what was going on as the action progressed. In that regard, the plot took center stage, although the characters all felt real to me each with her own unique voice and perspective. Great reading all of your comments.

    • Sometimes I have viewpoint trouble. My Phantom of the Opera story is in multiple third person. Most of time we’re with Erica, the MC, but sometimes Rolfe (Raoul, her boyfriend) tells a little, sometimes it’s Meg Giry (Erica’s friend), and sometimes it’s Charlotte (who’s taken from the character Carlotta in the original story. In my version she’s actually the villain).
      The only dilemma I have is picking between first and third person. First person is close to the character, but third person lets you distance yourself a little and still tell the story.

  14. Great post Gail!!!!! Thanks 🙂
    I don’t know about you guys, but I always struggle with POV–I’m really only comfortable with 3rd person limited. However, I just read “Storm Thief” (oh my gosh it was amazing), and it’s a fantastic example of using 3rd person omniscient. If you struggle like I do, I would suggest reading this book (also because it’s a brilliant read)–it gave me some fun ideas!!

  15. Hi there, I have a few questions:
    1. I’m setting my novel in a fantasy land, and all the characters there are fair-skinned. Would that offend people of color, because I’m showing a non-diverse world?”
    2. How do I address modern political issues? Like, say, North Korean dictatorship? It’s part of my story, but I don’t want to be Korean barbecue if you get my point.
    3. My Phantom of the Opera has outgrown its original story. It’s going off in a million directions, but every time it twists it’s away from the original. Pretty soon we won’t be able to tell what story it’s supposed to be. Got any tips? Because now it’s kind of turned into Schindler’s Ark + Fairest + Sherlock Holmes.
    Thank you!

    • Yulia — Personally, while I’m very sick and tired of the all-Caucasian characters, I’m used to it and it isn’t a big deal to me anymore if they are. However, if people add diversity to the book, I’m much more into it and it makes me excited because I think it’s fantastic that the author is portraying a diverse cast of characters.
      Obviously it’s your choice, but I would choose to add diverse characters, even if they’re not main. Maybe if you have 3 main characters, and 7-ish supporting you could have 3 or 4 be diverse?

      • Song4myKing says:

        Kathleen – I have had the same question as Yulia, and I am glad to hear your opinion. Another connected question – Is it better to spell out how a person looks (skin color, or shape of the eyes or whatever gives a picture) or to name a character’s ethnicity? On one side, naming a collective group would give an immediate picture that you could then tweak with individual detail. On the other hand, the collective name might give the idea that the character’s ethnicity defines her or matters to the plot. Terms like blond and redhead are often used with no more meaning than a quick way to establish a basic picture, but I’m wondering if the same idea should be applied here or not.

        • I think it really depends. I have a friend who was adopted from China, and in her book all the MCs are adopted from China as well. In that case, she has to make it very clear that they are all adopted from China, and are Chinese. If you just had a book like Ella Enchanted, where the ethnicity of the character wasn’t a huge deal, but you wanted people to gyess that she was, say, South Anerican, I’d say:
          “______ threw her dark hair over her shoulder. Her dark eyes and medium skin hinted at South American ancestry, though I wasn’t positive.”
          Obviously that’s not at all good writing, but you get the idea.

          • Song4myKing says:

            So far in my stories, ethnicity hasn’t been important to the story. And my stories so far have all been in settings like our world (not an isolated area like Yulia’s might be). So I could be including more diversity. I wasn’t sure how to go about it, but this gives me some idea.

    • 1 – To be honest, I dislike the attitude that authors are obliged to include characters of all races to be inclusive. You should do what’s right for your world and story. If the native population of your country is fair-skinned and they don’t see a lot of immigrants or visitors, then there should be no problem with having a non-diverse cast.

      • About the first one: I rather agree with Elisa. I mean, there have been and are cultures in the world where people are all basically the same race. I don’t think that having almost everyone or even all of them being the same colour means that you’re racist or anything, and it never bothers me when I’m reading a story. Like Elisa said, do whatever works for your story.

        • Erica Eliza says:

          On descriptions: It depends on the cast and setting. It always annoys me when an author says something like “Susan had deep frappuccino skin and hazelnut colored eyes”. Okay, I’ll just drive to Starbucks and run around the mall with my frappuccino shouting, “Excuse me, person who is a different ethnicity than I am, can I compare this drink to your skin?” Sometimes I feel like authors are dodging “Susan was (ethnicity).” But if several of the characters are Susan’s ethnicity and she’s more frappuccino colored than most of them, I don’t mind so much. Or if it’s set in the far future and nobody uses ethnicity names anymore but somehow frappuccinos have survived.
          I have a Japanese American friend who gives all her characters Japanese names, but they’re in non-Earth settings, and Japan is an Earth thing.
          On inclusion: My Cinderella story has two kingdoms, one predominately black and one predominately white. My MC’s from the mostly white kingdom but the story takes place in the mostly black one and she’s biracial, so the topic of race come up a lot. Her mother and half sister are the only white characters. But then I’ve also written several fantasy stories where everyone is white. It depends on a lot of things. How you envision your characters, number of characters, real world cultures you’re basing your world on, how easily people in that world can travel, whether or not you’re fascinated by diversity, etc. Just do whatever works for your story’s needs.

          • I have a cast of diverse characters, but they’re all fair-skinned. They’re Polish, French, and German, so I have characters from different countries, but they are Caucasian. Is that all right?

  16. I was really eager about setting Phantom of the Opera during World War II, but now I read something that says that it’s tough to portray the Holocaust correctly if you haven’t lived through it. I depicted the ghetto where the MC Erica (a young Jewish woman) is living as a prison and a slaughterhouse, where 30 girls are packed in one little room and they get fed only once every 3 days or so. But I’m not sure if that’s right, and I don’t want to portray it inaccurately.
    Also, I was going to write that Erica’s best friend has a red coat, but is that kind of plagiarizing? Because in the movie Schindler’s List, I hear that there’s a little girl in a red coat who makes Schindler decide to help the Jews. I don’t want to steal anyone’s ideas here, but Erica’s friend just adores red. Should I change her so she likes blue or green or yellow, or is it okay to have a Polish Jew who wears a red coat during the Holocaust? (If you’re wondering, I moved the story from Czechoslovakia to Poland because Poland was annexed by Germany first).

    • I think anything that was as terrible and life shattering as the Holocaust would be hard to write about if you hadn’t had first hand account, but I don’t think that means you shouldn’t try. I just think you should probably do a lot of research–and more than just fact books or overviews. I’d read tons of first hand accounts, and, if possible, talk to somebody who lived through it yourself. A few years ago, a woman came and visited my school and talked to us about her experiences during the war, and it just suddenly seemed much more real than any account that I had ever read made it seem, if that made sense.

  17. Oh, and I want to name my book THE MUSIC OF THE NIGHT. That’s the title of one of the songs in Phantom of the Opera. Is it okay to call it that copyright-wise? Can I quote an occasional line from the musical for a chapter heading or two?

  18. Dear Gail,
    I have a writing contest entry due in less than a week, and I’m having a whole lot of issues.
    My characters are changing their personality, I’m having plot holes, and time travel is bringing in a whole lot of complications. I’m also having trouble getting everything from time travel and every effect it might have fleshed out and worked out.
    I have a few questions, if anyone can help.
    Should I leave my extremely nerdy time travel bits how they are, so that they’ll be very complicated and keep the ending less easily guessed at, but have a harder book to comprehend?
    Should I make it much less complicated, probably easier to guess the ending, but have an easier book to comprehend?
    I’m writing YA, FYI. 🙂

    P.S. – your chapter about observing people in Writing Magic has improved my writing a whole lot. Thank you. 🙂

  19. Hi all,
    I know this isn’t that related to the topic of this post, but I’ve found that the blog gets more exposure than the guestbook. Just a quick poll: how many of you like reading satire/parodies of either historical/political events (think Animal Farm by George Orwell) or just cultural themes in general (consumerism, privacy, etc. Think Beauty Queens by Libba Bray)? I’m working on a YA/older kids satire novel, but I’m not sure how many people would be interested. I personally love the genre, but not a lot of my classmates seem to. Any responses are appreciated 🙂

    Oh, and does anyone have any advice for writing from the POV of someone who is a different age than you are? I’m trying to write from the POV of a twelve year old (I started the story in 7th grade and just recently picked it up again), but I feel like my voice is distinctly high-schooler-ish. Anyone else with this problem?


    • Is this the same Kitty who was on the Guest Book talking about copyrights? If so, I have a tip: Much as I liked your idea of using modern things to describe what’s going on, it might date your story a little. In 50 years people might not know what the Hunger Games are and they’ll be really confused. Like, sometimes I watch comedies from the 1980s and I don’t get all the humor because it’s all before my time.
      For example, once I described my character as looking like Julia Roberts, but then I realized that in 50 years people might not know who that is. Just a tip.
      As far as the 12-year-old voice, I had the same problem in reverse. When I was 13 I tried writing an 18-year-old girl as my Main Character. I’d suggest you read books with a 12-year-old narrator and see how it’s done. A few you can try:
      THE TAIL OF EMILY WINDSNAP by Liz Kessler (and sequels)
      SAVVY by Ingrid Law (the girl in there has just turned 13)
      Does that help?

        • OMG I used to love American Girls as a kid!! I’ve read a lot of them multiple times, but I never really got into the mysteries collection, as they came out later when I was starting to get to old to read them. Still love the originals, though.

          • I’m still obsessed, and I’m a teenager. XD Actually the blog my name is linked to is my personal-that-has-been-taken-over-by-dolls.

      • Hey Belle,
        Yeah, it’s the same Kitty from the guest book. 🙂
        Thanks for the tip about the dating. I’ve never really thought about it I guess, as I was more focused on the short-term success of a book than the long-term impact. I feel like unless your book is really, really, good, popular, and famous (think Harry Potter), or have some really strong and poignant message (think To Kill a Mockingbird), no one’s going to remember it after 50 years. I mean, take the popular YA books now- everybody is obsessed with Divergent and the Hunger Games now, but in twenty years how many people are going to have read it, or even heard of it? It’s sad how many books get lost in the stacks of time.
        I’ve read The 13th Princess in seventh grade, and really liked it. I’ll have to reread it again sometime. The other books you recommended seem interesting too, so I’ll definitely check those out. But yeah, I’m a pretty regular reader of children’s fiction, though I’m technically too old for it. It’s a bit embarrassing to admit sometimes, but hey, we’re all on Gail’s blog right now so we’re all in the same boat, right? It helps with my writing, but I feel like I have to always make a conscious effort to write that way. And whenever I really get really into writing I slip into my “natural” voice, with is that of a high schooler. Oh well, I guess I just have to try harder.
        thanks, you’ve been a big help,

        • Well, imagine yourself as a twelve year old. You were probably a lot more naive than you are now. There were most likely concepts you had a hard time grasping that are now easily dealt with now that you are older. Words that you didn’t understand. Adults would have conversations that didn’t make any sense to your twelve-year-old brain. I think about myself when I was the same age I’m writing as when I write a younger character. I try first to think of the things that I didn’t get when I was younger that I understand now. Things I was too innocent to wonder about. Stuff that I was unable to comprehend at twelve that I now have a better understanding of. It’s only been a few years, but it’s made a big difference. Things change pretty fast. Something that works for me is reading stuff I wrote when I was twelve (or whatever particular age I’m going for), anything, book reports, e-mails, stories, essays, journals, anything. Also, think about your obsessions at that age. I was obsessed with jewelry. I made lots of it. Not the cheap plastic stuff. I went all out, swarovski crystal and semi-precious stones (I couldn’t afford anything more expensive than that). I made some fairly nice pieces and get a lot of compliments on my jewelry still. (My mom wears it to work and people compliment her on it. There, bragging done.) I also read Sherlock Holmes a LOT. I read and re-read it. I read as many mysteries as I could get my hands on (yes, I to adored the American Girl mysteries too!) I also read lots and lots of Mrs. Levine’s books. Ella Enchanted. Her books about the Neverland fairies. Her Princess Tales (which made me want to start writing my own stories). Fairest. The Two Princesses of Bamarre. A Tale of Two Castle. I read and re-read her books about a thousand times. I always had something of hers on my shelf. Think of the phases you had when you were twelve, and it should get your mind thinking in the twelve-year-old channels again. Hope I helped.

        • Kendyl Bostic says:

          Hey, Kitty, I’m in high school, and I love satire style things like you said in your able comment. I think if it’s something you would like to read, there’s probably some audience for it out there. If you were inspired by something else that was good enough to get published then there’s got to be some audience for you. Also, I’ve tended to have the same problem with age as I started a series of sorts when I was in middle school that my friends and family still like to read and want more of. The issue is that I’m now a lot older than my characters, so it helps me to go back and read the journals I kept at that age (I’ve kept a journal since I was eleven, so I’ve got a lot of material). Anything you wrote or enjoyed at that age should help you, and if it helps you could make your character a little advanced for her age like in MATILDA by Ronald Dahl. Hope this helps.

  20. Sorry to hog space, but I have another question, this one specifically for Mrs. Levine. I’m writing a short story. So far it’s the only short story I’ve ever written. How would I go about getting it published? Can I get it published it by itself, or would I want to write a few more similar stories to put it with, like a collection of short stories? Do you have any advice? (I do not want to self publish.) If anyone else has any experience with this sort of thing, any help would be appreciated.

    • Gail will probably have better advice, but here’s my 2 cents:

      I’ve found it easier to get one story published than a collection.

      Is your story Fantasy or Science Fiction? There are places out there like Ralan.com and The Submissions Grinder that have lists of markets that are open for submissions.

      Be wary of markets that charge you money to submit. There’s a saying called Yog’s Law that says “Money flows TOWARD the writer.”

      Make sure to follow the magazine’s guidelines, and read an issue first if you can, to see if your story would be a good fit.

      And if one story gets rejected (the odds are really tough. I have 700+ rejections), jump in and write another one. 🙂

      Good luck!

      • Gail Carson Levine says:

        Melissa knows more than I do about this. I’ve been asked to submit short stories to a few collections on a theme, and most have been published, but I haven’t sent stories out unsolicited.

        Having said that, I think I mentioned here that HANGING LOOSE magazine welcomes submissions from high-school-age people. And I think THE LOUISVILLE REVIEW does, too.

        Congratulations on finishing your story! Good luck with it!

          • Thanks, I’ll check those websites and magazines out. I haven’t actually completed it just yet, but hopefully it’ll be done soon. It’s fantasy, probably about 5,000 words (give or take a few? I haven’t finished polishing it, so I can’t be sure what’ll stay and what’ll go). It’s about the second most wanted woman in the kingdom, and a soldier who accidentally captures her.

    • I am currently trying to submit a novel (FRIENDLY FIRE, kind of like Shannon Hale’s ENNA BURNING) to some agents. I’ve gotten 3 rejections so far: Barry Goldblatt, Amy Jameson, and Brianne Johnson. Next up are Victoria Wells Arms, Rebecca Sherman, and Ginger Knowlton.
      If you want help with a query letter, I suggest something that really grabs your attention. Here are a few attempts of mine:

      Spunky Ella has been cursed from birth to obey any order she’s given. Seeking a fairy godmother to break the spell, she encounters ogres, elves, giants, princes, and evil stepsisters in her quest for happily-ever-after in this fresh spin on Cinderella. (Ella Enchanted)

      If Aza were pretty, she’d be a famous opera star. But instead she’s a lady-in-waiting, forced to sing for a beautiful queen. (Fairest)

      When brave Princess Meryl falls ill with the Gray Death, her timid sister Addie must journey through forests of specters, dragon lairs, and ogre territory to find a cure before it’s too late. (Two Princesses of Bamarre)

      Denied of her crown and sent to marry a prince she’s never met, Princess Anidori is betrayed by her lady-in-waiting and escort guard. Hiding as a goose-keeper, she must reclaim her identity before the traitors discover her. (The Goose Girl)

      Feisty forest girl Enna learns the power of fire and tries to use it to end a bloody war, but the fire tries to burn her up and she must find a way to save her kingdom before she burns out. (Enna Burning)

      Razo, the weakest soldier of the Bayern army, is sent on an ambassador mission to the enemy kingdom of Tira. Inside the strange city he discovers brutal murders and mysterious people and must unmask who is trying to sabotage peace. (River Secrets)

      Does that help?

      • Have you considered self-publishing through platforms like Amazon or Kobo? It may not be as prestigious as traditional publishing, but it’s a great way to start out. That’s what I’m planning to do when I finish my novel. And if you do get a contract with a traditional publisher, you can always just take the story off Amazon/Kobo. There have been some indie writers who got famous through self-publishing and then ended up with a contract with a major publisher. (The author of Fifty Shades of Grey, for example)
        Hope this helps

          • It can be tough mostly because you have to do A LOT of the work yourself, like cover design, editing, formatting, and marketing, but you can learn some of that stuff pretty quickly (formatting, marketing) and find freelancers/friends to do the other stuff (cover art, editing, etc.). But it’s gotten a lot easier over the years as amazon does some of the work for you.
            Another benefit is that by doing it yourself you get a lot of experience and marketable skills, such as marketing and interacting with customers, which can be really helpful for future job/college applications. (I’m guessing you’re a high schooler?)
            Hope this helps!

      • girl_artist says:

        I’m writing my first novel. It’s doing very well, but I don’t know how to publish a book. Any tips?

          • Actually, a lot of what I said about short stories above probably applies to novels too. I’ve only got one out, though, and it’s an e-book, so I’m probably not the best person to ask.

          • Song4myKing says:

            My suggestion is to not worry about it too much until you’re closer to ready to publish. Until then, keep your eyes and ears open to learn what you can about publishing.

            I had the same worries, but by the time I was ready to try for publishers, I’d gleaned an lot just by perking up my ears when I heard anything I thought I might need to know. But that still wasn’t much. So a friend brought me over to her house to talk to her dad. He has connections to a nearby publishing house, and he runs a little bookstore in the corner of his primary business. He found catalogs from the publishers he buys from and we wrote down email addresses for six of them. He gave me advise on writing query letters and such also. He’s never written a book himself, but he knew about the type of publishing houses that I was interested in. That was a start.

            If you know anyone who has an interest in books and publishing (such as a bookstore owner) and has even a little experience or wisdom, talk to them. What they know may be enough to get you started, and the moral support always helps!

          • Gail Carson Levine says:

            Publishing is constantly changing, and it’s a little complicated. On the good side, there are books on the subject of getting published. I’d suggest one that’s come out in the last three years, nothing older than that.

  21. Any idea what to do when you start writing a story based on another story, and it goes off the deep end and evolves into a whole new story altogether? I’ve got that issue right now with PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (Which I’m currently calling MUSIC OF THE NIGHT). It’s a wandering little story and it’s turned into a war chronicle. The opera barely plays a role in the story!

  22. I read Gail’s posts on beginnings but I’m still a little confused. This is the dilemma:
    So I’m trying to establish the beginning of my Phantom story. Currently we have one manuscript page of introduction, and then the Nazis grab Erica the MC. All we know about her is that she can sing. So is that too soon to have her get caught? There is a lot of material after that scene, but I’m not sure if I should give a little introduction to her and her parents, or a little tour of the village, maybe?
    I kind of based the opening scene off the one from THE SOUND OF MUSIC (the movie), where Sister Maria is spinning around and singing. But in that story, she doesn’t just get pounced on by the troops, she hears the clock chime, runs into the abbey late, etc.
    Do you guys have any tips?
    P.S. I think I might read the diary of Anne Frank and see if it gives me some inspiration.

  23. This doesn’t entirely have to do with this post, but I have a couple of questions about one of my stories.
    1. I’ve recently started revising a story I’m working on and I’m having serious problems with that. I hate deleting everything I wrote and starting over, but I also have a huge inconsistency throughout my book. For example when I started Lilia and Daniel actually bumped into each other in the halls, but that was too coincidental, so I changed it part way through. This seems to call for an entire rewriting of the story, but I’m not really able to do that. Do you think I should do that or that I can go back through and edit as I go?
    2. I kind of hate my main character. He’s so boring. It’s hard to write his changing views about things when he just kind of follows what others do. I could write from his best friend Kai’s perspective, but Kai dies, so I couldn’t continue the story too well. I could write from Lilia’s perspective, but I had my heart set on finally writing a boys POV. Should I change my characters to make them more interesting? Daniels main struggle is the struggle to accept that what Lilia says is true, but when I went with his character he just sort of accepted it. An all knowing narrator would seem like the best choice, but I don’t want the reader to know everything that everyone thinks. I ended up just taking a break from the story, b it didn’t help me much. Any suggestions? Thanks.

    • My tips:
      a) make Daniel more interesting
      b) don’t kill Kai and let him narrate
      c) use an omniscient narrator (not a character per se, but rather a voice that hops from one character’s head to the other’s, so if you get bored with Daniel you can switch to Kai and Lilia’s thoughts).
      Sometimes I don’t rewrite a whole story, I just drop things in little by little. Then I smooth it over in the final draft.
      Hope it helps!

      • Thanks!
        I’ve tried the omniscient narrator and they just know too much. They dip into everybody’s heads and figure out each and every character when I still want the reader to be unsure of them. I’ve tried changing my characters too and find that the plot loses a lot when I make some changes that seem necessary. Maybe its just my plot thats the problem!

        • You know you could try multiple third-person.
          If you don’t know how that works, here we go:
          Scene 1: Third person, tells only what Daniel is thinking.
          Scene 2: Third person, tells only what Kai is thinking.
          Scene 3: Third person, tells only what Lilia is thinking.
          Keep going like that, picking which character is the best for each scene.
          Does that help?

  24. My story seems ever changing. Ill change one detail then I have an idea for an entirely new plot. I’m eager to start writing it but I’m worried it’ll change and I’ll have to start over again to work in these different details. Any suggestions?

  25. Okay, I have a bit of a controversial subject matter.
    My Jewish MC, Erica, has just arrived in Paris. She has escaped the Nazis and is checking into a hotel in Paris. The hotel owner tells her that everything she could need is there. She opens up the drawer and finds a Christian Bible. She’s so tired of being in a world that’s not designed for Jews that she swears and chucks the Bible against the wall. So do you have any idea of how I can avoid making 1/3 of the world (the Christians) mad while showing how exasperated Erica is?
    Thank you!

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      There are many ways to express exasperation, and Erica should choose the way that’s most consistent with her character, not with possible reader preference. But many questions, and very likely this one, can be left unresolved until you finish your first draft. By then, the answers may have become clear, or you may even have cut the entire scene! Good luck with the writing!

      • I’ve been thinking maybe she will see the Bible in the drawer and slams it shut in frustration. That may be a better way.
        Also, thanks Gail for bothering to read my post; I’m glad to see that some writers actually care about their readers.

        P.S. It’s my birthday today!

    • Song4myKing says:

      I’m a Christian, and I don’t think that would offend me. I read many books that are not written from a Christian viewpoint, and I don’t expect to agree with everything the MC does. But I wouldn’t want her to step out of character. In a book, and in real life, honesty and genuineness and real feeling are better than apathy or hypocrisy. And I’d rather read something like what you’re talking about than a book that mocks Christianity or flippantly refers to the Bible as a collection of superstitious stories and rules. Of course, that is my own opinion, and others may feel differently.

      I’ll admit that your idea of slamming the drawer shut sounds better to me, but do what seems most likely.

      P.S. Happy Birthday!

      • Thanks!
        I’m Buddhist, so I don’t have a connection to Christianity or Judaism, but I can get a little bit annoyed when I go to a hotel and find a Bible in the drawer. Not everyone in the US is Christian; my whole family is Buddhist, I know a few Jews, my mom’s coworker is Muslim, and one of my friends is Hindu.
        Also, does writing a Jewish MC count as adding diversity?

        • You know, “adding diversity” could be a really interesting starter topic.

          I get leery when people talk about “adding diversity” as though it were a bonus added to the “real” story. (Not that I’m saying that anyone here is doing that!) I think it’s more important to acknowledge that there are all kinds of people in the world, and put various people in the story because they belong there.

          Ex, I recently submitted a story to an anthology that required at least one MC to have a disability. Now, I have a disability. I give my characters various medical conditions all the time. But on this project I froze up, because I didn’t want it to be a Story About A Disabled Person and nothing else, if that makes sense.

  26. I think this is an appropriate post to place this question…..
    I have a new idea that I want to work on, and I already know that two points of view are required for it. What I’m struggling with is knowing when to switch POVs (or, to begin, when to introduce the second character). How many chapters is a good average to have? And how many to establish the first character before switching? Thanks, everyone!

  27. I’m Christian and I have absolutely no problem with that response. It makes sense for her to react that way. She’s just escaped the Nazi’s and she gets to relative safety . Then it’s right up in her face. A Christian bible. I completely get it.
    Now I have some questions.
    Does anyone have some motivation tips? I get anywhere from 20-60 pages into a story/novel and I just give up after one too many bad scenes.
    My writing also always seems so, to quote your editor, Gail, “flat”. Same sentence structure, simply awful adjectives and boring characters. Help!

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      Thanks for posting! I’m adding your questions to my list, except for the one about sentence structure, because I wrote a post on the subject not too long ago, which you should be able to find by looking in the category list.

      But you may get more immediate help from other writers on the blog if you resubmit your questions to the latest post, which I published a few minutes ago, because people may not go back and respond to comments on earlier posts.

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