The Establishment

For any of you who can get to Long Island, New York, on Saturday, November 14th, I’ll be speaking and signing at 2:00 at the Longwood Public Library, 800 Middle Country Road in Middle Island. I’d love to meet you!

For those of you who: are eighteen or will be by next fall, are writing for children or young adults, and can get to New Jersey for a one-day conference, I want to mention the one at Rutgers University, where I mentor every year. You have to apply, I think by April. People who are accepted are paired with a mentor who is either an editor, agent, or published kids’ book writer. Most of the mentors are editors and agents. I’m one of the few writers. I met my agent at this conference many years ago. I encourage you to apply. The website is one-on-one plus.html, and information for next year will be posted soon. If you come, please be sure to introduce yourself to me.

On July 16, 2015, Mikayla wrote, 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?

There are exceptions to everything, and anything goes if it does go, but in general, it is best to start anything major early. For example, if we’re writing contemporary fantasy set in an ordinary place, say Trenton, New Jersey, but there’s going to be a dragon in our story, we should bring it in early or our reader may feel unprepared and may even refuse to accept our creature. In the case of a dragon I’d say the first page isn’t too soon and after the first chapter may be too late. The dragon doesn’t have to appear in person then, necessarily, but it should at least be hinted at.

In the case of a POV switch, I’d say Chapter One for the first POV and Chapter Two for the second. That’s what I did in Ever, and the two POV characters alternate chapters for the whole book although I don’t think we have to be as consistent as that. Once the reader knows that there will be more than one POV, we don’t need to stay regular, but we do have to make sure the reader knows whose head she’s in. In my mystery, Stolen Magic, which is written in limited third person, I shift POV among my three main characters, but the default character is the dragon detective’s assistant, Elodie. She has the POV whenever she’s around. The other characters take over only in her absence. The POV shifts aren’t regular, but I don’t think they shock the reader.

As for establishing an MC, I don’t think that happens quickly, so we don’t have to wait before introducing a second MC. They can even both be introduced at once. For example, in the Sherlock Holmes stories, Watson is the narrator. The reader gets to know Holmes through Watson and to know Watson, to a large degree, through how Holmes reacts to him and what he says about his assistant. The two happen simultaneously.

Harking back to our outliner/pantser discussion, you outliners may invent your characters as part of the preparation process. You may work through your outlines and create character descriptions before you start the actual writing. But for this pantser, I discover my characters as I go along.

But regardless of which method we use, the reader develops an understanding of the MCs as the story moves along. Sometimes, most of a story can be over before the reader has a full understanding of an MC. I’m remembering Little Women and my astonishment when Jo falls for Professor Baer. I had no idea she could love such a settled and, to my thinking, unromantic man. And Amy and Laurie! But their preferences were part of their personalities that were revealed late in the story. I don’t think Louisa May Alcott changed them suddenly to make her plot work.

In my historical novel, Dave at Night, I, pantser that I am, didn’t find out that Dave is a budding artist until Dave did, in an art class. And, when I found out, I had no idea how his talent would play out in my story.

Of course our characters have to be distinctive, and of course we establish them from the first moment our reader meets them. How does that happen?

Last weekend when I was mentoring. I saw only five pages of my mentee’s book, but she did a splendid job of beginning her characterization. In the first half of the first page I found out that the MC is very attached to her father, because she’s distressed that he failed to wake her up before leaving on a business trip, which told me as well that she has strong feelings. Just like me, our reader will be eager for clues to each character and will start assembling a complex personality.

In The Two Princesses of Bamarre, I begin with Addie’s fears. In Dave at Night, Dave begins by telling the reader what a trouble-maker he is. So if we start firmly in our MC’s head, he can introduce himself by narrating about what’s most important to him. Oh, the reader thinks, that’s what this character cares about.

That’s just one way. We can start with dialogue to give the reader a taste of our MC’s voice and his relationships. Or action, in which our MC reveals his response to a situation or demonstrates how he creates a situation.

For example, let’s take the fairy tale, “The Twelve Dancing Princesses.” We’re starting the story at night. A poor, drugged prince sleeps in an adjoining room, and the princesses are about to descend to the enchanted lake and their enchanted princes. Our MC is right in the middle, the fifth eldest princess. I’ll call her Maisie. How can we introduce her to the reader?

Through her thoughts. She can wonder if the prince next door is really out cold. The reader discovers that she’s careful, maybe a bit of a worrier.

Does she act on her worry? Maybe she does. The prince is asleep, but the casement window in his room is wide open. Worried again, she closes it, because April nights get cold. The reader understands that she’s kind. Or, she closes it because she doesn’t want an outside noise to wake him up. Not particularly kind, but very thorough.

Or, though she’s worried she doesn’t check on him because she knows delay will infuriate her oldest sister, and she’s scared of her sister’s rage. Failure to act is acting too. The reader learns something else, which is likely to be developed further.

So we have her think and act. We can have her say something too, to her sisters or to the sleeping prince, so the reader will discover how she expresses herself in dialogue.

The sisters descend the staircase. Maisie puts the prince-sleep worry out of her mind. Or, the sisters descend the staircase, and Maisie can’t get the prince out of her mind. Her enchanted prince will know something is troubling her. Whichever she does, the reader accumulates more data.

At this point, we probably haven’t written more than a page or two, but Maisie is taking shape. If our second POV character is her enchanted prince, we can certainly let him take over in the next chapter.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Write the scene I’ve described. Decide what Maisie does with the prince in the next room and reveal what she thinks and does.

∙ Write the next scene, narrated by Maisie’s enchanted prince or any other character you’d like to have take over.

∙ Aladdin, in his eponymous fairy tale, has always seemed a nonentity to me. Things are done to him and for him. If you know him just from Disney, reread the original fairy tale, and you will find that the only actions he takes involve telling a genie what to do. Write the beginning of the fairy tale and bring him to life as someone who wants something and acts to get it.

Have fun, and for those of you who are participating, good luck with NaNoWriMo. Save what you write!

  1. I created a NaNoWriMo group right here:
    Check it out if you’re doing NaNo this year and want to see some friendly faces!
    Also, my username is cattus if you want to friend me. Fell free to come to me with any questions, I’ll do my best to help!

    Also, the group is on a forum thread for the adult, “full” NaNoWriMo. You should still be able to access it if you’re in the YWP, but there’s not a special group for you guys. If anyon over 18 here wants to start a classroom in the YWP (you would have to register as a teacher), then hat would be a YWP only group.

  2. Oh, by the way, Gail– would you mind posting the group link in your next blog post? I was thinking it might get a bit more attention that way, but it’s fine if you would rather not.

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      I’ll be happy to. I’m delighted you’ve initiated this, and I may lurk sometimes. Everyone: I hope you’ll get involved!

      However, my next post won’t be until November 11th, when NaNoWriMo is in full swing. So, everyone: No reason to wait for my reminder!

    • Per the official rules, you’re supposed to start a new story, and start writing it on, and only on, November 1st. (though an outline is permitted) You then have one month to finish it or write 50,000 words (or however many you want, if you’re in the Young writers program). That being said, there’s no one really enforcing the rules, so if this is your first year you can probably go a bit easier on yourself and bend the rules a bit. Just make sure to only count the words you wrote in November.

  3. Margret Steedt says:

    Quick question, y’all, for NaNoWriMo, are you allowed to p0ublish the novel you write after it has been submitted to the website? I know sometimes, posting or sending online can count as self-publishing. I’ve never done NaNo before, so what 0f? Is your work posted online? Is it read over and kept? BOTTOM LIE: after submitted to the NaNo website, is one allowed to then send the same story to an editor or agent? I need to know ASAP, because Nov 1st is drawing, and I need to finalize my plot outline, in case it happens to be the one that Im not NOT going to not publish. Heck if that makes sense, but still, HELP!

    • When you submit it on the website, they have a machine that does a word count and deletes it from the word base, so none of your work is kept/read by a human. You are encouraged to send out your book to editors and agents, and there are a bunch of resources for editing and publishing sent out in January/February. Publishing is allowed!

  4. Margret Steedt says:

    OH one more itsy thingamabob……. For the word count, is it supposed to be exactly 50, 000 words, or can it be more? Im guessing the 50000 thing ids an AT LEAST, but Im just makin’ sure. Thanks in advance, everyone!

    • 50,000 words is the goal. Some people want to get into writing the mode but don’t want to commit all the way, so they set lower goals. Enough people aim higher that there’s a section of the forum called “Beyond 50k”.
      When you finish your novel, you submit it to the website, which counts your words and then deletes it. It’s not saved in any way, let alone made available to the public. Many NaNoWriMo projects have gone on to be published works.

      • I should probably also mention that the 50,000 word goal is required for the “full” program for adults. If you’re in the young writers program (17 and younger), you get to set your own word count.

  5. Virginia Law Manning says:

    Thank you for your wonderful post. Your notes on when to introduce magical elements or a new POV will help me redirect my current project. I also love the idea that the reader can still discover nuances of the main character’s personality right up to the last page. In a series, I can see this would increase the reader’s eagerness for the next book!

    In my chapter book, my main character is in 3rd grade. When my son was this age, he and his friends had a secret language. Instead of using common expletives, they substituted helicopter for hell, etc. My main character does something similar only she uses the names of junk food, for example “Oh, fudgesicles!”, because her mother is a health-food fanatic. It’s the MC’s way of keeping junk food in her life and getting back at her mother.

    So my question is, do I need to give the reason the first time my MC uses one of these substitutions? I’ve tried to weave in an explanation but I can’t get it to feel organic–probably because she’s using it at a moment of great surprise–not the best time to weave in backstory. I think I can introduce the reason later, but worry that may be too late. Any thoughts would be greatly appreciated!

    Thank you again for all of your wonderful suggestions! I started reading “Writer to Writer” last night and will enjoy the wisdom of your past posts, as I wait for your next one to arrive in my inbox on November 11th! Thank you again!

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      I don’t know if you ever have to supply the reason. Most readers will figure it out and feel pleased and in the know, and those who don’t, won’t, but I think that’s okay. Anyone else have an opinion?

      • Virginia Law Manning says:

        Thank you, Gail! BTW–I’ve enjoyed revising my chapter book so much over the last two weeks! I’m finding it hard to sketch because my manuscript keeps calling ‘fix me, fix me!’ I’m sure I’ll find more technical aspects to work on after reading “Writer to Writer!” Thank you again!

    • Maybe you can have your MC say it and their mom give a sigh of exasperation and complain about it. I don’t know if this will work in your plot, but if it does I think it’d be better to introduce it ASAP.

    • Chrissa Pedersen says:

      Hi Virginia, I think it’s fine to just use the unusual expression and let your reader catch on. It might be helpful to use two different expressions fairly early in the story. Your reader will see they are junk food related. I know what you mean about over-explaining at the wrong moment. There may be other ways to weave in the reason for her use of these expressions as the story unfolds; in a “showing” way of course and not in a “telling” way 🙂

      • Virginia Law Manning says:

        Thank you, Chrissa! My main character does vary them–all within the junk food theme. As I revise, I’ll look for ways to weave the backstory in! Thanks again!

  6. Chrissa Pedersen says:

    I want to give a SHOUT out to Rutgers One-on-One. I was accepted last year, and was superbly lucky to have the wonderful Gail Carson Levine as my mentor 🙂 I learned so much from our intensive together, but also learned oodles from the wonderful speakers and small 5-on-5 group. It’s a wonderful way to meet authors, agents and editors in a supportive environment.

  7. HAPPY NOVEMBER EVERYONE!!!! Always an exciting time of year. NANOWRIMO starts today! Just wanted to say good luck to everyone participating this year, may the odds be ever in your favor.. 😉 Just zone out the distractions, forgive yourselves, don’t forget to take breaks and it’ll all be good!

  8. So, I’ve been working on a story for about a year, and I’ve recently begun to edit the first chapters to get it on the current storyline. This is about the fourth because the others didn’t hold up or really make much sense at all.
    I recently realized that my two main characters are similar, almost identical people. They are from the same place (earth, together they find their way into a Narnia-like land) they both want to stay for different reasons, and neither is especially smart, nor just plain dumb. I was wondering if it is possible to change her character, but keep her name and physical features the same? Would it be easier to simply remove her from the story and add a completely new character?
    I have no experience with writing, but I’m determined to see this story through, for myself if no one else.

    • At one point while rewriting, I realized that my main character’s three friends were all pretty similar. Each had a different roll in the story but the each responded to my MC’s story in the same way – it didn’t take much convincing to get them sympathetic to her cause. I also had too many characters in general, and one of them appeared near the end of the book for a specific purpose (kinda to watch out for the MC, but oppose her cause at the same time). It turned out that one of the three friends could very easily fill that roll instead. I had to go back and rewrite all her parts in the story, but it made a huge difference. Things made more sense, there was more tension throughout the story rather than just at the end, and everything got more interesting. I was able to deepen the characters of the other two friends and give them their own perspectives and motives that don’t (I think) sound repetitious. And the one I changed – I didn’t even change her basic personality. It really felt like I only sharpened what was already there. All I did was tap her toward the other direction, and she seemed more alive than before.

      You say your characters have their own motives. Great! So now, what’s behind the motive? In my story, the two who are still sympathetic to the main character have different backgrounds and personalities. One is loyal, just because loyalty is a part of who she is as a person. She stuck out her hand in friendship and she won’t take it back. The other, I must admit, has more base motives (she’s still growing though!). She’s looking for excitement, something to shake up the status quo, something interesting to happen, someone interesting to know. Why? Because she’s a notch younger than her siblings who did interesting things together before she was born or before she was big enough to participate, and she has no friend nearby to do things with, and her closest companions are books where interesting things are always happening. I don’t get into all that specifically, but just knowing it helps me to know what their reactions to things will be, and I can refer to their background with confidence when it comes up. The end result is that they are two very different people.

    • The thing is, if them both together are moving the plot along nicely, then you can get away with similar characters. If you like the female lead, but just find her dull or repetitive, then try adding some fresh vocabulary only she uses, or give her a depressing past, or give her a love for parties… adding new and interesting elements will give the characters depth and make them seem more vivid. Also, if each of them has their own role and their own contributions to the plot, then the reader is likely to overlook (or forgive!) the fact that both of them have the same basic personality. Hope this helps!

  9. Related to the establishment of POV – I have a story that’s “finished” (but I keep going back over it and finding embarrassing things to fix). It’s third person omniscient. For the first 18 pages, I don’t step out of my MC’s head at all. On page 19 I make the first shift to another head, at the end of a scene. After that, it happens sometimes within scenes, but more often at scene breaks. It feels natural to me, but then I’m the one who wrote it. Do you think that would be a jolt to someone who’s been solidly in one head for the first 18 pages (which comes about two thirds of the way through chapter two)?

    • I had the same problem with the story I’m writing, so I decided to break up the beginning a bit. I tend to switch perspectives at scene breaks, so I went back and finished a scene in my MC’s head, and then re-wrote the next scene from a different person’s perspective. I just changed a few scenes here and there so that they were in different perspectives and the change wasn’t so sudden. This doesn’t always work, but when it does, it could help to get the reader used to the omniscient perspective.

      • I considered that, but I don’t think I can switch the POV in any of the first scenes (I’ve done it elsewhere). The MC is going through some major changes and her mental and emotion reactions to things are rather crucial for understanding her actions later on.
        But, I just thought of a way I might do it without disrupting things too much. I think I’ll try to add a very short (paragraph or two) scene at the end of the first chapter. I think I could make it work: the MC has just left and rather than follow her immediately, I’ll try taking advantage of the end-of-chapter pause and give a glimpse that she can’t see.

        Thanks for your advice. It’s kinda funny how a bit of advice might not actually work in a particular situation but somehow it manages to tickle some bit of the brain that prompts another solution. I’ve had that happen before. It’s why we have writer communities I guess!

  10. This doesn’t really relate to anything, but I wanted to ask: does an antagonist have to be a person? My antagonists tend to be more symbolic, in almost every story I write. I just tend to focus on emotional stories, where the main conflict doesn’t really lie with other people. For example, in the story I’m writing, my character is trying to move on from a tragic past by simply ignoring it, and the antagonist is more in her mind, the memories coming back to haunt her because she isn’t grieving for them in the proper way and her mental block against talking about them or thinking about them. But is it okay to have everything inwards, or should there be some sort of person manifestation of the conflict in my stories as well?

    • There are three (ok, 4, but the last two kind of go together) main types of conflict, and in two of them the antagonists aren’t other people.
      1. character vs. self (which sounds like what you have in your story)
      2. character vs nature/surroundings/situation (ex: wilderness survival stories like Hatchet)
      3. character vs. character (the traditional protagonist vs antagonist form)
      4. character vs society/ideas (this one is kind of like #3, but instead of one or a few individual people, the character us up against society in general. I guess an example would be someone trying to overcome racism, or discrimination, or for some reason is going against society.)
      Often times, though, stories have a mix of those four.

  11. I just wanted to say Thank You to Gail and everybody else who encouraged me to finish that Sleeping Beauty story a while back. I haven’t got the contract yet, but it looks like it’s found a good home.

  12. Melissa Mead: That’s so cool that you’re getting your book published! It must be very exciting! What’s the name of your story so I can look for it at book stores? : )

    Now I have a question for the wonderful Mrs. Gail Carson Levine. It kind of has to do with publishing:
    Mrs. Levine, I think you are aware of the Disney Fairy book franchise? They use a lot of your characters. Did you have to give them the rights to the characters? If so, how exactly does the process work?
    I ask because I’m writing a fan fiction book series. I originally planned to keep it just for my cousin, but now I’m thinking about showing to a few more close friends. And maybe (MAYBE) I MIGHT publish it one day.
    I’m not super serious about it just yet, but I want to know what would happen if I wanted to get the rights for the particular characters in my book. In case I firmly decided to publish my book.
    Thanks ahead of time for everything you do!

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      Thanks for the “wonderful!” It went the other way around. Disney hired me to write the first book that started the franchise, and then I wrote two more. Other writers were brought in for the shorter books in the series. I never owned the characters. Sorry if this doesn’t help your situation.

  13. You’re welcome about the “wonderful”!

    I kind of had an idea that Disney might have hired you, but I wasn’t positive.
    I still wonder, how did Disney hire you? For example, did they interview you, or did you volunteer?
    I hope you don’t mind my questions.
    I think it’s the coolest thing in the world to be able to communicate with one of my favorite authors!

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      Several editors took me to lunch and asked if I might be interested in the project. I was, and my agent worked out the contract details with Disney.

  14. Mrs.Levine, are these story starters able to be used for novels? For instance, if I wrote a book out of this story starter, would I have to change the character’s names, like Maisie to Lily, and take out any resembleance to your beginning?

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      The story starters are for blog readers. You can use them any way you like with no danger of copyright infringement. BUT, if you meet with success, I hope you’ll share the good news with all of us. AND an acknowledgment in your book would tickle me!

  15. Hi Gail,
    I was lurking on Rick Riordan’s blog today and found a post from a long time ago recommending your blog for writing advice and questions that people always ask him but he never has time to answer. I was wondering if you two are good friends/acquaintances. Do you have a lot of author friends? I think it’s so cool that the publishing industry is one of the few business fields where “competitors” are actually friendly with each other and help each other out instead of trying to simply beat the competition.

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      Rick and I are good acquaintances–I don’t know him well. Yes, I have a lot of writer friends. I think being a writer may be, in one respect only!, like being a doctor or police officer, in that civilians don’t understand what it’s like, which makes the company of other writers a relief and a pleasure. I experience this here on the blog, too. We all know how hard and compelling and satisfying writing can be.

  16. The Florid Sword says:

    I had a question. I’m not doing NaNoWriMo, but I always wonder: Why do my finished novels come out so short when everything you find at the library is so LONG? How do you get your novel to a good length without padding or unnecessary plotlines? I don’t tend to have very complex plots so maybe I just need to add more elements to the story? If anyone else knows what I’m talking about, I’d appreciate any advice!

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