Discomfort Zone

On June 7, 2015, Arnyoung wrote, I was wondering if anyone has had any problems with thinking about the audience when you write. I have kind of the opposite problem from 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?

There seem to be several questions here:

∙ Is there a problem thinking (or not thinking) about audience when we write?

∙ Should we write for contests?

∙ Should we generate our own ideas rather than work on ideas supplied by others?

∙ Is there anything wrong with writing adult characters when we are teenagers?

∙ Not positive about this one: Is historical fiction a fit subject for a teen?

Just saying for starters, the posts and prompts on this blog are rarely angst-ridden or depressive, and people read the blog, fool around with my prompts, and discuss their own work, which isn’t usually (although sometimes) full of teen misery. There are many audiences, and lots of readers adore historical fiction. Count me among them.

However, nothing is simple. I’d say yes and no to each of these questions.

Let’s start with the third one. I don’t think we should put aside our own ideas, ideas that are tugging at us, that please us, that make us enthusiastic about writing. That’s what we should write, because writing is hard enough without it feeling like medicine we have to choke down.

But I confess that sometimes I get sick of myself, of the way I word things, of the themes I tackle habitually. When we’re not full of an idea, or when we suspect that we, too, are covering familiar territory repeatedly, an outside idea can broaden us. If the idea seems too alien, we can free write about it and see what associations it calls up. We can make lists of possible directions we can take the story.

Second question. I see nothing wrong with writing for contests. You might win! I’m ignorant about this: Do contests really specify that characters have to be troubled teens? If they do, and you’re in the mood for something outside your usual genre, sure, go for it. If they don’t, why not submit something in your usual vein anyway, in the hope that good writing will win the day?

Now let’s imagine that the almost unimaginable best happens: You write an edgy story about a disturbed and disturbing teen and win the contest, which is not what’s almost unimaginable. Of course you can win! What follows, however, is that the story gets national attention, is anthologized in a collection of best short stories by emerging writers in 2015. Suddenly, you are urged to keep writing in this new vein.

Well, if you were delighted with this new genre and have lots more ideas, pursue what interests you. But if you still love your old genre, go back to it. Your new readers may follow you. Some certainly will. And even if no one does, the most important thing is to be the voice you want to be.

Fourth question. There is nothing wrong with writing adult characters when you’re a teenager. Some people only catch up to their emotional, mental age when they reach their forties. And anyway, it’s hard to avoid writing adult secondary characters, so young writers have experience.

But if you’re writing from in the first person of an adult, you may want to ask an adult if you’re getting it right, if the voice rings authentically adult. It’s not so different from writing in a voice of the opposite sex. We want to be sure we’re hitting the right note.

Here is one tip that may be helpful for some: Sarcasm tends to fade in adulthood. Just saying.

I’ve been an adult for a long time as we all know since my recent birthday. My interior life was very different when I was in my twenties than in my forties and again in my sixties. It was different, aside from age, when I was working for someone else from what it is now, working myself and living a writing life. If I live to be very old, I suspect it will change again. So there’s all that to consider. Still, go for it if that’s what appeals to you.

The fifth question is easy. Of course historical fiction is a fit topic for a teen. A great topic! As has come up recently, we want to do our research and get the details and the big historical events right.

Now for the first question. The only audience I like to think about when I write is an admiring one. Sometimes I have my editor in mind if I think she’ll love what I’m doing. If I’m not sure, I’m best off banishing her. But my most constant audience when I write is me, because I hope to write what I would enjoy reading. I rarely wonder if what I’m doing is right for a young audience. Occasionally, I think about that when it comes to word choice, and usually if I want to use a ten dollar word, I decide to go for it. The kids can look it up or figure out the meaning from context or grow up having the wrong idea about a particular word, which could cause a little embarrassment of the sort I’ve survived more than once. Most of the age appropriateness comes naturally to me, and I think it will to you, too. I put material into my poems for adults that don’t occur to me in my fiction for young people.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Write about a teen in the Middle Ages whose family is unsympathetic even dysfunctional in whatever way you pick. Let’s make them neither impoverished peasants nor nobility; the father is a member of the bakers’ guild (or any guild you choose), and everybody has to work in the family business. Think of something your MC wants or a problem the family faces. Write the story.

∙ Move the teen and the family into the twenty-first century. The family business is a fast food franchise. Everybody has to help. If you can, use a version of the same problem that motivated your medieval story. If you can’t, create a new one.

∙ Go back to an earlier blog post or dig into Writing Magic or Writer to Writer for a prompt that feels way outside your comfort zone. Give it a least a half hour’s worth of a whirl.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. Great post Mrs. Levine! I agree that you should write what you like to read. Writing is solitude, and anything that comforts you as you move your fingers is probably what you should write about in your time alone within a cushion of words.

  2. A quick question, though, any tips on NaNoWriMo for this year? Its my second time, but it feels like a first. My sisters trying this year for the first time , and I don’t know what advice to give her because I’m thoroughly stumped and rooted myself. Also, anyone for more rules and regulations? like how it exactly works? Two years ago, when I participated, I had a hard time even submitting, and my sister is going through a lot of drama herself. Help!!!!!

    • I haven’t been doing it for super long either, but here’s some tips I’ve figured out from past mistakes

      1. Have a clear idea of what you plan on doing. A premise and a few scenes are NOT enough, as I found out the hard way. No matter if you’re a planner or pantser, when you’re on a tight deadline you do NOT want to be wasting time thinking about what to write. This year I’m going in with a written outline, although if you really want to pants this you can just have the general plot of the story ready in your head.

      2. Pick which group you want to be in. There are two NaNoWriMo groups: the normal one for everybody where the word count goal is 50,000 words, and the Young Writers Program for 17 and under where you get to set your own word count goal. The YWP is easier to win, but the adult one has better prizes. (Although this year’s prizes aren’t as good as last year’s; they used to give out free copies of your book.)

      3. Make a commitment and clear out time. This will take up a decent chunk, if not most, of your free time, especially if you’re doing the normal one. Plan for that, and maybe cancel any extracurricular activities for the month. It’ll be worth it.

      4. Check out the sponsor offers. Companies like scrivener often offer extended trials of their products for the duration of the month, and then a discount if you win, and lots of companies are offering free ebooks/resources about publishing your book. If you want to try out writing products you’ve heard about, now is the time.
      By the way, I really recommend Scribophile. It’s a free site where members trade critiques with each other. If you decide to join, my pen name is Isla Covey is you want to friend me 🙂

      Basically, you write a 50,000 (or whatever your goal is) word novel in one month, beginning on November 1 and ending on November 30. You are not allowed to start before then, though you are allowed an outline. You must finish on the 30th. About a week before the end, you can start validating your word count with the word count validator. If you’ve met your goal and won, you can collect all your winner’s goodies during the first week of December. That’s pretty much it, but you can read the full FAQ here:

      I’ll be starting a NaNo group for fellow readers of this blog soon, so keep an eye out for that.

      Good luck and have fun! This is going to be awsome!

      • Oh wow, Kitty, thanks! this was really helpful! Scribophile sounds so cool, and who knows? Maybe you’ll see me on there soon! I’m super slow so I will have to spend every living moment writing if I want to get this done! For the winners, does anyone who finishes, and achieves the set amount of words win the prizes, or is there like a top 10 or 20 list? Sorry if these questions sound naive, I’m just really nervous and can’t take my mind of the rules of the game.
        You know what? I figure you’re right. I should totally relax, this IS going to be awesome!

  3. Chrissa Pedersen says:

    I love both the title of the post and the sage advice. I’ve never thought about envisioning an admiring audience, but will have to try. I love when someone reads my work and finds something there that I hadn’t noticed or deliberately intended. It reminds me that we all come to the table with different backgrounds and expectations. I wonder if there are any audiences, homogeneous enough, for us to directly write for.

  4. Great post!
    I’ve been wondering something, and I wanted your guys’ input. Do you think it’s okay to write more than one story based off a single fairytale? One of my favorite fairytales is the Twelve Dancing Princesses. I’m writing a story that sort of mixes it with Jack and the Beanstalk. But I’ve recently had another TDP idea, one that doesn’t really work with the one I’m writing. Do you think it would be okay to write both?

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      I think it’s fine and terrific. But I wouldn’t publish them close in time to each other. I’d let a few years go by, because we don’t want to compete with our own books! However, if readers love your first take on the story, they’ll be eager to see how else you spin it.

      • Or you could use a different pen name. I feel like if two different people do something like that, readers won’t really care, but if one person does that it might seem like they’re out of ideas. Just look at the recent Stephanie Meyers gender swapped Twilight controversy.

    • Okay. Thank you all–it’s good to know I don’t have to choose one over the other.

      I also have another question (Sorry!). I love poetry, and would love to be able to write it well. But I’m also not very good at it. Does practice help with this kind of thing? With writing in general? Or do you have to actually figure out exactly what’s wrong with what you’re writing and try to fix that? (Sorry if this doesn’t make any sense.:)

      • Gail Carson Levine says:

        Thank you for this question, which I love. I’m adding it to my list. But, please, don’t let me stop other people from weighing in.

      • Sometimes practice can help you pinpoint what you’re doing wrong, but sometimes you just have to push through and practice, practice, practice! In poetry there are not a lot of rules, so if you feel like something is wrong it’s probably something you don’t like about the writing style or poem, so practice is the only thing to remedy this.

      • Often for me, I just try anything in sight. If I’m feeling a little heavy in a section, I will delete it, saving it if it turns out I would like to use it later. Usually, the words start to perk up by themselves, or the boggy thick mud covering the words is now cleared and fresh. If you can’t tell exactly what’s wrong with it, I recommend try having a peer edit if you’re comfterable with that. Hope I could help!

  5. I agree with Gail about novels. If you’re writing short stories, though, I don’t see why you can’t write as many versions as you want. I’ve done Cinderella and Snow White at least 3x each. And mixing them together is fun! 🙂

  6. So I have a totally random question: swear words. I don’t use them in my stories, but I was wondering if you guys know of any “fake swears” or phrases that a character can use? I have some like “I don’t give a fly’s wing” or “that sodding idiot”! But I was just curious if any of you could think of any others, even just to prime the pump. Plus, I think fake swears or swear phrases add character and humor 🙂

    • In Prince Caspian (the book, anyway; I don’t know if they got it in the movie), Trumpkin the Dwarf has his own pattern for exclamations: two unrelated nouns that begin with the same sound, such as “Thimbles and thunderstorms!” and “Giants and junipers!” Some of my friends say similar things, too. One I heard today – “Jumping Jehohosaphat,” which has apparently actually been around for quite a while. There are some classic ones like “piffle” and “fiddlesticks.” And once while playing a game, someone read a claim that in one state it is illegal to take the name of Smokey the Bear in vain. Of course, we began doing just that – everything was “Smokey-the-Bear” for a while.

      As for generating ideas, think about what you are trying to say. In your example, “I don’t give a fly’s wing” the fly’s wing works well because it’s minuscule, and says what you mean. If you’re wanting to describe something unpleasant, think of unpleasant things – “that rock-in-the-shoe idiot!” – well, maybe that one doesn’t flow that well, but you get the picture. And think of the background of those speaking. A tailor might say something about a weak thread or a scrap of cotton for the thing that’s too small to care about.

      • I like the advice given by Song4myKing and Melissa Mead! Another great example of fictional swearing is in Anne Elisabeth Stengl’s TALES OF GOLDSTONE WOOD series. Like Melissa Mead said, it works really well to use elements of the story world that characters feel strongly about (whether positively or negatively). In this series, dragons are evil and greatly feared, which results in phrases like, “Dragons teeth!” or “Dragons eat you!” People from legends also crop up: “Silent Lady!” being one of them.

        In my fantasy WIP, some characters swear by important landmarks too. “Great Bending River, we’re all going to die!” Stuff like that. XD

    • ButterflyYulia says:

      (warning: I come from a traditional Buddhist family where saying “s–ks” gets you into trouble; that’s also why I’m always asking, “Is this or that clean?”)
      In my writing, I use a lot of mild expressions. “Darned”, “shoot”, “oh great”, “gosh”, “golly”, and “what the heck” are common ones.
      Sometimes you can just say “he swore” if you have a situation where any of the above wouldn’t work. In Shannon Hale’s DANGEROUS, one character is constantly saying bad words, and it becomes part of his character, but the narrator filters it like this: He said, “She’s going to be one bleeping mad hornet.”
      I’ve learned that constantly swearing characters gets annoying. If a character uses one iffy word (and I’m talking about the d- or h- words, nothing that makes a movie PG-13) once every 200 pages, I can handle it. But if the characters are cussing every two pages, then I forget about the main plot and spend 400 pages wanting to yell at the author, “This is still a kids’ book, people!”
      That’s just my opinion on this, but I hope it’s helpful.
      (also, sorry for the ranting here; I know this is kinda long, but I’ve been on Twitter talking about clean teens’ literature).

      • Chrissa Pedersen says:

        I agree with Yulia, too much swearing even if it is benign swearing can get in the way of the story. But swear words that are organic to your world or that help to define your character are great, as long as they aren’t over done.

        • My characters never actually use real swears–I can’t stand swearing! I just want this character to have a few humorous “swears” (made up ones that mean nothing except to the characters in the book). I don’t think I made that actually clear lol–my bad guys!! Thanks for everybody who weighed in!!

  7. Isn’t “sodding” a real swear?

    I think the best fake swears grow out on the world- the things that people consider gross, or sacred things that they use as swears to be shocking.

  8. MisplacedPoetry says:

    Practicing poetry helps, just writing, not some much I think. With poetry its different than just story writing because with poetry, its more of the idea than the storline

  9. ButterflyYulia says:

    As far as the questions addressed in this post, here’s where I stand: (sorry this is so long; my biggest problem with my writing is verbosity)
    1. Often I think about the audience AFTER I write the book (sorry for the caps there; I can’t italicize on this site). I write a story, and then I judge whether it’s middle-grade, young adult, or new adult (I’m getting into that genre lately). If it’s a little gorier or features an older MC I sell it as YA or NA; if it’s tamer or about a younger person I call it MG.
    2. I’ve never written for a contest before; the only thing I’ve ever entered was a spot on Jeopardy (hasn’t happened yet, btw). I don’t think it’s wrong to write for contests, though.
    3. I write what comes from the soul. Once I heard this heartbreaking story about a young woman who’d been through every horror you could think of. As soon as I heard of it I had to write a story about her (changing her name and setting but keeping the gist of it). I think that’s the purest writing I’ll ever do. I’ve tried other themes because I liked them, but if it doesn’t touch me, I don’t get a connection to the story. My best work is always a story that makes me cry.
    4. I haven’t written a MC over 25, but I have written characters who are older than me. I have many stories about characters who are 18 or 19. I’ve never been that old, but I’ve read many stories about 18- and 19-year-olds, and I try to imagine what I’ll be like when I’m that old. I’ve written parts of stories from male perspectives and nothing catastrophic has happened :D. For me, it’s not such a big switch because the girls I write aren’t like me either. One is an opera star and I sing like a wailing cat. One loves to dance and I’m super clumsy. Another is an Olympic weightlifter and I can barely hold a door open. As Gail said in one of her other posts “You shout tomayto, I’m too shy to whisper tomahto, let’s call the whole story off”, we don’t have to be like our characters, we just have to write them well.
    5. I adore historical fiction, both reading and writing. I’m writing stories in ancient Rome and France in World War II, and my new favorite book is Number the Stars (technically I’m too old for it, but I still love it!). I don’t think it’s a bad thing to write about history when you’re young. I actually think it enriches us to know about the past so we don’t make the same mistakes as our ancestors.

    ‘Bye guys!

  10. I hope to find an answer to this question and present it clearly-it’s very important in a story I’m working on. Often, story ideas fizzle out, and I have about a hundred 10 pg. stories in my computer. Now that I have started a novel, I plan into delving more into my character and her growth, but I’m finding it hard with her thoughts. When she’s struggling over a descision, or coming up with an idea, I don’t know how I should properly convey her thought process. If anyone has any ideas or suggestions I’m all ears. I hope that this is clear enough.

    • If this persists, you may want to try to write another 10-page story that is just the character talking or their backstory. It doesn’t have to be featured in your novel but may help you to get to know the character better and write their thoughts. You could also try switching your point of view to see if that will work better for your novel. Good luck!

      • Thank you for your advice, and I will be glad to try it, although I think I understand her character, I just don’t specifically know how to articulate what I want to be written. For example, I could go on and on forever in her voice (I love using it) and write many paragraphs about her home, family, and friends, but I can’t write one sentence of her figuring out a problem.
        If there was a situation where, let’s say, she was given a riddle or problem that she had to solve, I wouldn’t know how to begin. How do you describe the thought process of people?
        Thank you for answering, and I am certaintly going to try all of your suggestions, and I’m glad that you wrote back.

        • MisplacedPoetry says:

          Maybe you should just let her go on and get all that out of her system, then she might be ready for some problem solving and you might get how to do it?

          • Gail Carson Levine says:

            Interesting discussion! I’m adding your question to my list. You might also look at my other posts on thoughts.

    • I looked back over something I wrote, to see how I did it. I’m a little weak on showing thoughts myself, and I often rely on dialogue and, like Melissa said, actions. I suggested you look at some favorite books and see how the author did it.

      Anyhow, what I found in my story: My MC is a very logical thinker, so in a way it was easy to write her thoughts. Once she took out a paper and wrote down her plans. Writing it in a list WAS her thought process in that case. Later, she can’t sleep, so she decides to mentally list all the arguments the antagonist could raise, and then answer them all. These scenes remind me of a guy I once knew. In my friend’s words, “He thinks in an outline.”

      But my characters, including my MC, don’t always think in logical order. I studied some of the cases and I found I do a lot more indirect thought summery than direct lines of thought. I think this reflects the way I think. If I tried to write the way I actually think, there’d be only a few clear, concise, and complete sentences. The rest would be a jumble of words, phases, emotions, and pictures, and a lot of going back and forth. So when writing a character’s thoughts about something, I summerize in my own words most of what they think and maybe add a few direct thought lines in their voice. And I often mix direct and indirect thought with dialogue or actions.

      Here’s an example:
      “She was half in, half out when she heard voices in the master bedroom. She froze. She’d never get away. Go! Her head yelled at her. She lowered herself out the window, hanging on only by her hands now. How far down was the ground? I’ll sprain my ankle, she thought. The window frame was cutting into her arms. Drop, she told herself.”
      I usually use italics for direct thoughts, but I can’t here. Another short example of introducing thought:
      “Abbie stood still, her fingers drumming on the table top. So much for wishing Kendrick would get it over with. Now suddenly she wanted more time – now that she had to make a decision.”

      I suppose it depends some on which POV you have. I use third person ominscient which is why I summerize in my “narrator” voice – like, “She’d never get away” rather than, “I’d never get away.”
      I never really thought about how I wrote thoughts until now. I found some interesting tendencies in my own stuff! Anyway, I hope something here is helpful.

      • Thank you so much for replying! After reading your advice, I know exactly what to do, and how to do it. My chacaracter once gave her trust to someone, and they used it against her. Ever since, she has been guarded, and has the ‘Every Man For Themself Philosophy,’. Her thoughts are probably clear, concise, logical, although sometimes she will slip up and act more in emotion rather than mind, later cursing herself. Knowing this, and how you used it to convey your character’s thought process helps me a great deal. Thank you so much!

  11. Hi Miss Levine!

    Thank you for all the amazing work you do on your blog!

    I have a question that really has nothing to do with this post, but I was afraid I wouldn’t get a response of I wrote this comment on an earlier post:
    On the third book of a fan fiction series I’m writing, I realized that the plot was too similar to Avengers: Age of Ultron (a complete coincidence since I have never seen the Avengers movies.) So, I thought it would help if a changed the villains “species.” (In my opinion, there can be a BIG difference in having a robot for a villain, rather than an evil mermaid, for example.)
    Now, as I’m thinking about the villain’s backstory, it’s too similar to Star Wars. Ack!
    How can I create a believable, yet original, backstory?

    • First thing first: There’s no such thing as utter originality. Art does not exist in a vacuum. You learned how to tell stories from the books, movies, TV shows, etc. that you’ve consumed throughout your life. Even in dreams, you can’t do or think anything you have never learned about. George Lucas read a book called The Hero with a Thousand Faces before he wrote Star Wars.
      I’m guessing the Star Wars villain you’re referring to is Vader. He has three whole movies of backstory plus spinoff material. Let’s see, what happens to him? Born to a single mom, raised in slavery, won his freedom, trained as a Jedi knight, fell in love with a queen, went to war, went dark, lost limbs to lava. I can think of plenty of villains with elements of that. For example, the villain of the Fablehaven series briefly mentions starting out as a slave. But Vader gets a whole movie on that. I never drew the connection until right now. I can think of plenty of villains who went to war. I can think of plenty of villains who went bad around the same time they obtained characteristic injuries. So unless you’ve got A LOT of these elements in your bad guy’s backstory, I’d say you’re safe. Even if you’ve got several, just consciously make them different. Win freedom through a way that isn’t pod racing, lose limbs to something other than lava. Really, you should be fine.

  12. Butterfly Yulia says:

    Sorry I haven’t been blogging much lately; we were out of town and we left the computer back home.
    I’m having a little trouble with a romance plot. I’m not romantic at all. I have never had a boyfriend, never listened to a boy band because the singers were cute, never drooled while watching those shirtless guys on Dancing with the Stars or anything like that. (My friends are all girls, I listen to Celine Dion and Taylor Swift, and I only watch DwtS because my mom likes it and Bindi Irwin is such a sweet girl).
    Aneeeeyway (I am such a rambler, aren’t I?), I don’t do romance stories. I can’t do them. I can’t get inside my main character’s head. How can I write about this hot thing blooming between the characters when I’m gagging through the kissing scenes? It kills me to write them, and yet it’s not much of a Snow White story if Snow doesn’t like her prince. Help, please? 😀

  13. Erica Eliza: Oh my gosh! Thank you for taking the time to respond to my question! You’ve been very helpful, and I’m so glad I participate in this blog with so many other talented writers.

    Butterfly Yulia: If you don’t like romance, and if you can’t write it, then you don’t have to do it. Even if you do get through a scene with kissing, for example, a reader might be able to tell if you haven’t enjoyed writing it.
    It’s totally okay if you don’t fancy a certain genre of storytelling. I’ve never picked up a horror book, and I’ve only liked a handful of mysteries. And you won’t find too much horror or mystery in my stories.
    Still, if you REALLY want to do the story with romance in it, I’d be more than happy to give you some more advice. I adore a good love story!

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