Rolling the doughnut

Before I start the post, there’s this: Reggie bit our garden hose in hopes of creating a fountain–and succeeded. I discovered it because I heard clicking, which turned out to come from Reggie’s teeth as he bit water repeatedly. David caught it all on video and put it on my website. If you have any interest in seeing our crazy dog, here’s the link: Just click on the first video with the nightscape and full moon.

On April 11, 2016, Nicole wrote:

Q#1-How do I write the beginning and get the ball rolling? I always have exact plans for how I want the plot, middle, and ending to go, but when I plan on paper, my beginning always reads something like, “MC Jane sat on her bed eating a donut.” No specifics. I’m blank on how to start the story to get the reader interested. I’ve re-read my old works and they’re always boring and dry in the first few paragraphs.

Nicole had two more questions about beginnings, which I’m saving for my next post.

Christie V Powell responded:

1. Beginnings are the hardest part for me. The rest of the writing goes okay, but getting started feels like pulling teeth, one word at a time. Sometimes telling myself to just write something, no matter the quality, and I’ll fix it later, helps a little. Another thing that sometimes helps, if you know the ending, is to figure out what opening might start your story heading toward that eventual ending–my WIP starts with the main character sneaking into an enemy camp, which she will have to do again, more dangerously, in the climax.

And Christie V Powell had more to say, which I’m also holding back till next time.

I agree with Christie V Powell that not worrying about the beginning is important. My beginnings usually change and often disappear. As a pantser, I don’t even always know what story I’m really telling when I start.

Below, just for fun, are the first three paragraphs from the earliest version of The Two Princesses of Bamarre that I can find, which I think I also put in Writing Magic::

Fable has multiplied us. Perhaps the hall of mirrors where we danced is to blame. Instead of twenty-four, we were only six. Three princesses. Three princes.

There was always one soldier. Fable did not multiply him. Fable couldn’t, not such a one as he. But the old woman, the one who gave him the cloak of invisibility, she is entirely fable. There was no such person.

And Father did not have any princes killed. He has many faults, but murder is not one of them. The fable is more exciting, I suppose, if the princes have to pay for failure with their lives. But it strains credulity, and it simply wasn’t true.

It’s a nice beginning. Maybe someday I can go back to it, but not a sentence of it appears in the published book. I was trying to novelize “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” which I found impossible, although others have succeeded. My story changed, and I discarded the beginning, although, obviously, following my own advice, I saved it.

However, even in this aborted attempt, I was following one of Christie V Powell’s suggestions, in that I was setting up my story. I knew I couldn’t deal with twenty-four main characters, so I shrank the number right off. And, since I had never been able to figure out the motivation of the old lady with the cloak of invisibility, I ditched her. Finally, I eliminated all the decapitated un-enchanted princes, because I couldn’t tolerate all those innocent deaths.

Christie V Powell’s idea is even better, though: to hint at the conflict that will motivate the whole story. Let’s see if we can do so using Nicole’s example: Jane sat on her bed eating a donut with Christie’s advice.

Remember lists, a writer’s most useful tool, from a recent post? Let’s list how we might use the sentence to foreshadow what will go on in our story. Below is a list of eight possibilities As an early prompt, come up with four more. Notice that mine got wilder as I kept going. No idea is too foolish to go on a list:

∙ The donut is poisoned.

∙ Jane is stress-eating.

∙ Jane’s dad is strict! If he catches her eating in her room, the consequences will be dire.

∙ Jane’s school has started a program to reduce obesity among the student body. When she gets to school she will have to get on a scale. She’s overweight, and a lot of shaming is going on.

∙ Same as the last one, except Jane was only a pound over her ideal weight the last week, but she’s a perfectionist.

∙ Someone is hiding under Jane’s bed.

∙ Jane is secretly a super hero whose power comes from donuts.

∙ Jane’s house is about to explode, and she will be the sole survivor.

Nicole asked how to get into specifics, and Christie V Powell suggested that the direction of the story can help. So let’s look at a few of my possibilities. If the donut is poisoned, we will probably dwell on its appearance, flavor, smell, taste, and we may reveal–or hold off on revealing–where the donut came from. If Jane’s house is about to explode and the explosion isn’t connected to the donut and she’s going to lose some of the people she loves the most, we may want to go into detail about how the donut came to her. Did somebody buy her favorite flavor for her? Or did her brother buy the kind she hates most because they’re arguing? Or anything else that may heighten what comes next.

So this strategy is to think about whatever we started with and how it fits into the main idea of our story. If we don’t see an obvious connection, we make a list.

Another strategy is to write the stuff that seems boring to you, just to do it, just to get it out of the way and move onto the part you’re happy about. When you get a few pages into that and your story is rolling along, go back and escort the beginning you don’t like into a separate document, so you’re saving it but you’re not keeping it in the story.

I don’t like dry and boring beginnings–who does? And we want to avoid having them, but we also don’t need the terrible pressure of feeling our beginning has to be perfect or that we have to snag people in the first sentence. Most readers will hang in for a few paragraphs or a few pages. Some forgiving readers will hang in a lot longer. They will have liked the cover, the jacket copy, and they’ll wait to be rewarded. One of my favorite books (It’s for adults but as I remember it, it should be fine for middle school readers. Still check with an actual grownup to be sure.) is Time and Again by Jack Finney, which doesn’t really get good until around page fifty-one. It’s a time travel historical novel about New York City at the time when money was being raised to erect the Statue of Liberty. It’s got adventure and romance, and one learns a lot.

Here are four prompts:

∙ Pick one of my or your donut possibilities and write the story.

∙ Change the beginning of your donut story so there’s no donut and it starts at a different point.

∙ Write the beginning of a long version of one of my favorite myths: “Cupid and Psyche.”

∙ Write a shopping list and make it the beginning of your story, and through the items on the list start the main conflict.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. Does anybody have any advice about writing a bio for your author website? I don’t have any writing credits or a job (I’m just a boring ol’ student) so all I can talk about is myself and my interests/hobbies, etc, but I’m afraid I might come off as too immature/unprofessional. While I write kidlit, the target audience right now is any agents I query who might check out my website, so I want to appear like a mature, competent, professional, not a giggly teenager (Which I kinda am in real life.) On the other hand, I do want to appear genuine and lively, but I think being professional is more important. What should I talk about? Do agents want to hear about my cat, my hobbies, or my reading preferences? I really need something more than a few sentences long, because right now my bio is the only thing on my website (I don’t blog and I don’t have any books out), and an empty website just feels awkward.

    Also, how long should a website bio be? It’s currently 160 words, and I’ve heard that that’s too long, but Gail’s bio (which is lovely, btw) is way longer. And what POV should it be written in? First or third person? I’ve heard arguments for and against both.


  2. For what it’s worth, here’s mine. It’s not very long.

    Christie Valentine Powell wrote her first story in second grade, and she has been writing ever since. Her other hobbies include making toys, hobby farming, and eating at Asian buffets. She lives near the sunniest city in the world with her husband, four children, and many chickens.

    This is my About the Author page. I included my bio, links to social media, and a little article I wrote about writing:
    You could also do a writing sample with some short stories, maybe a news statement about your goals or what you’re working on. I use the blog feature on mine to release a monthly short (page or less) snippet that has to do with my current project, such as letters from the characters, scenes from upcoming books, “from the history books” about the world of my books, etc.

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      When my husband and I developed my website we looked at websites of other children’s book writers for ideas. You might consider doing the same. And I don’t see anything wrong with including your hobbies–agents and editors will probably want to get a rounded perspective of you. Also, it’s nice to give something away–information, not anything tangible. Like my website includes resources for writers. You might post reviews of favorite books to steer visitors to an enjoyable read.

  3. Mrs. Levine, I read your book Writer to Writer. I want to have a character with no personality in the beginning, but end up having traits that emerge throughout. How would I do that?
    Also, why do you say ‘have fun and save what you write’ all the time? Just curious. 🙂

    • Not Gail. I just think this is an interesting question.

      Maybe, rather than having “no” personality, the character’s personality could change depending on who they’re with, and they have to decide who THEY really are?

      I have a similar problem with a book about a character who goes from being monstrous to being likeable and almost heroic. But he’s so unpleasant in the beginning, no one wants to read the book!
      (I showed him trying to save his mother, but that wasn’t enough. Probably because his mother really is a monster.)

      • It seems like the tough thing would be catching people’s interest in the beginning. Perhaps enough interesting things happen to the character that people will continue reading it (fairy tales manage, after all, and popular romances where one or both of the characters are cardboard cutouts of “perfection”). Like Melissa said, you might want to have more of a character shift, just because all people have personality; characters who don’t are either minor, written in a fable-style, or badly written. You could easily have a character turn from reactive to proactive (only responding to what happens to them vs. actively do something about it), or develop other traits that are common to heroes like bravery (Two Princesses of Bamarre!) or selflessness.

  4. Sara-not-Sarah says:

    The main story I’m working on now (23 fully typed chapters and about 76 pages!) has lots of POVs. There’s the POV of the main character, the POVs of the three main characters after her, the POVs of two villains, and maybe more to come. The ones with the villains have only been used a couple times. I use third person because it would be impossible to distinguish in first. But are there other ways, besides showing names, to distinguish how the characters narrate from each other? Obviously each character has a different view of events, but I remember a post about using different writing styles between main POV characters. How exactly would I do that?

    And is a bunch of POVs a bad thing? Does it get confusing most of the time?

    • If some of the characters would be “impossible to distinguish” in first person, maybe you can condense some of them? Like combine some of the secondary characters into one?

    • Well…I don’t think multiple POVs are necessarily “bad,” in fact, I like a multifaceted story with two or three POVs very much. However, that being said, after two or three POV characters, it gets stressful for me to read. It doesn’t matter what book I’m reading, I WILL have a favorite character and the chapters told in their POV will be more interesting to me (even if all the POVs are really well written and interesting this happens).
      An example of this is LotR. Yes, I like Frodo, and I ADORE Sam, and every part of the trilogy is gorgeous, but I always get caught up in the story of Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli, and when I get to the part centered on Frodo and Sam I heave a mental sigh of frustration and plough through it so I can get back to reading about the others.
      Another example is Brian Sanderson’s book “Words of Radiance.” It had too many narrators, I had a favorite (I never intentionally have one, but I always get one anyways), and having to read about the other characters (especially with all the flashbacks) really jarred me. I didn’t like it. It was a difficult read for me.
      Too many narrators exhaust me, and I get frustrated and end up not finishing a book. I’ll get invested in one character’s story, and then I get yanked out of it and forced to struggle along with a character that I don’t like as well. If it gets too obnoxious, I’ll just skip ahead and just read one or two of my favorite narrators and ignore the others. But then I get an imperfect, rather muddled view of the tale and just end up being disappointed with the book.
      I don’t mean to try to discourage you, you should definitely write a story the way you feel is best, but I personally do not like reading books with oodles of narrators. Two separate POVs is enjoyable, three is good, four is pushing it. If I find the book I’m reading has five or more narrators I usually put it aside.
      Good luck with your story. If you need more narrators, use more narrators. It’s up to you, you’re the author.

      • I do the same thing with LoTR! I get really interested in Aragorn’s story, and then it flashes back to Frodo, and just as I’m really into Frodo’s story it ends on a cliffhanger! Love them otherwise.

        I find that epic fantasy often has a large number of POVs, in part because they are so long and all-encompassing that they have space for it. Some even do omniscient POV (Wild Magic by Tamora Pierce is an excellent example of a YA fantasy with omniscient; Dune by Frank Herbert is an adult one). Usually I don’t see it in many other genres though. The later books in Rick Riordan’s Roman series have seven POVs, and I feel that it was too much for that amount of space and didn’t allow each of the main characters to grow as they should. One method that I think would be fun to try is to have multiple POVs, but only one main character–so it’s always the same story, but the different perspectives add insight. Bella at Midnight by Diane Stanley kind of does this.

    • I agree with Lady Laisa and Christie V Powell that two or three POVs are fine, and can make a really interesting story like LotR. If you have too many POVs in one story, however, and are constantly switching back and forth, you may be in danger of doing something called head hopping. Head hopping is when you constantly switch POVs in the middle of the action, which is one reason why readers can get confused on whose POV you’re writing. I recommend researching about head hopping, unless you’re already familiar with the term, to make sure you’re not in danger of going that way. That being said, if you avoid head hopping, several POVs can work out well. In my WIP, I have four main characters, and a large cast (Its epic fantasy, which usually calls for that). At one point in the story, the four MCs get split up into groups of two by an unforeseen event that plays a key role in the story. Before they get split up, one of the other major characters leaves on urgent business, which is also key to the plot. So in the story, I switch from the POVs of two of the MCs who are together, to the other two who are together, and finally to the character who has left on business. They all come back together after a time and the POV is constant after that. It makes my story a lot more interesting than it would be without all of the POV changes. Now, my story is written in omniscient third-person, therefore I can easily avoid confusing the reader with whose POV they’re reading from. If you’re writing from third-person then it’ll be easier for the readers to understand, whereas I think navigating a large cast in first-person may be more difficult. Congratulations on having completed 23 chapters of your story, by the way! Hope this helped.

    • Song4myKing says:

      I’ve been asking the same question and looking around for advice. Seems to me it boils down to personal preference, what the story calls for, and how well it’s done. I personally like a lot of POVs (Depending, of course, on how it’s done). Lady Laisa mentioned that she generally doesn’t read books with five or more POV characters. I on the other hand, used to put books back on the shelf if I saw they were written in first person (Don’t worry, Gail, I’m okay with them now!). Point being – different people have different preferences. So I write in my preference and trust that there are others like me who will like it.

      Gordan Korman has written a multitude of books for middle grades and YA. All that I have read have had lots of POVs, including the perspectives of casual observers, (usually hilarious). He handles it masterfully. Some of his books have several independent plots that converge (e.g. WHO IS BUGS POTTER? and OUR MAN WESTON) and some are one story that everything spins off of and back to (e.g. I WANT TO GO HOME and SWINDLE).

      No, a bunch of POVs is not a bad thing and it does not have to be confusing. Do read up about head hopping and other dangers involved with multiple POVs. Now, or after you’ve completed your first draft. It will help you create a stronger story, but don’t let it frighten you out of what you enjoy.

    • Chrissa Pedersen says:

      I’m also a fan of LOTR, but have the same problem with multiple POVs as Christie and Laisa. Up to a point it’s fun to pop back and forth in high fantasy, but too many POVs and I get lost. And yes, the character development can suffer. If the story is more about the world and less about characters then multiple POVs can work well, but only up to a point. Christie is right, an omniscient narrator would be a good compromise (loved Dune 🙂 In regards to how to differentiate between your many characters, the one thing I find most helpful is if the names sound and are spelled very differently. If the names are all similar I have to go back and forth to figure out who is who, which can be frustrating. Another helpful technique is if the characters have very specific physical attributes so I can fix them in my mind and attach their name to that image.

  5. I have a question. How do you focus on your writing instead of getting distracted by the internet? My computer broke down so I have to borrow my husband’s, which means that I have to have internet access to get to my files. It doesn’t help either that my main WIP is being reviewed by beta-readers at the moment so I need to start something new in order to keep up the writing habit. Anyway, what tips do you have for staying focused and actually writing?

    • Song4myKing says:

      More sympathy! But I do have one trick that helps me – location (I use a laptop). Upstairs, at my desk, where internet is sometimes a little flaky anyway, I’ve instituted a personal “no internet except email” ultimatum. Even if the email sounds like something interesting on facebook or pintrest and includes a handy link. When I want to do something on internet, yes, including reading a blog about writing, I do it downstairs on the family computer, or bring my laptop down. Bringing my laptop down sometimes has the unfortunate effect of the laptop staying downstairs for a few days. But I think over all, writing-only time has improved, and internet time-wasting has decreased since I started.

      • I wondered if anyone was going to mention the blog with internet time. I love it, but I probably don’t have to check as often as I do. Anyway, thanks for the idea. I do have a writing desk I used at NaNo, but I haven’t been using it as much since. I’ll have to work on that.

    • What type of computer is it? Do you use Google Docs or Word? If you use Word (or whatever the Mac/Linux equivalent is), there shouldn’t have a problem working offline. If you’re using Google Docs and a Chromebook, there’s a “work offline” feature in the built-in Google Drive app. If you’re using Google Docs on a PC, then there’s a Google Drive app you can download, but I’m not sure if it has the same features as the Chromebook one.

      Computer issues aside, I find that it helps to set deadlines for myself, usually enforced by my beta group, since we have a set date where we swap, so I have to be done by then. I know there are a couple of apps too that eliminates everything on the screen except your writing, though I can’t seem to recall any names at the moment.

      • I was working on Word, but with my computer dead all my files are on Dropbox. Also, our Word subscription just expired and we haven’t decided how to renew yet. My husband has access to the “online only” word programs as a student, but that’s all.

        Thanks for the ideas. The deadline definitely helped during Nanowrimo; I’ll see about applying one now (yes, I know Camp is coming up in July, but I’ll have to get my computer problems fixed first). I’m at the beginning of a new story right now, which I mentioned in the post is my least favorite part. I picked up a notebook and started working by hand; that helps a bit because it limits the rewriting I can do.

        • Wow, sorry about your computer, but it’s good you have your files backed up in the cloud. I personally would recommend Google Docs, since your Word subscription is expiring anyway. It’s free and you can store files online if you download chrome. (I’m not familiar with the details since my Chromebook does it automatically, but you can find more info here: Oh, and it autosaves and syncs across devices too. The only problem is that it gets pretty slow once you have a few hundred pages in a single document, but I would wager that Word has that problem too.

          Alternatively you could also try Scrivener if you’re willing to shell out some money. Haven’t tried it out myself but I’ve heard good things. NaNo participants get a discount.

  6. Thanks for the post, Gail! I have a question, though, about one of my WiPs. I am kind of doing a retelling of the fairy tale “Manyfurs” and am mashing it with “Snow White.” My MC is very stubborn-minded, because in the story, when her father wants her to marry a preselected prince, she refuses. (Well, she accepts on the conditions of three impossible items being given to her.) My problem is, later on in the story, she promptly falls in love with another man, and he is instrumental in helping to rid her of the other prince. How can I make her love with the second man not forced or abrupt? Any ideas on how to ease into it? Thanks =)

    • I think that one of the big things in building a romantic relationship is that you focus on things beside romance. Sure, they’re attracted to each other, but just like any other relationship they also need friendship, trust, respect, fun (think sliding down banisters!), and especially selflessness. Pet peeve: romances where the guy is forceful and makes her do things. Sorry, that’s not love, that’s abuse.

      One thing I’ve been playing with is the 5 love languages. Everyone speaks and hears love through different ways. My romance in my WIP hasn’t gone far yet (it was barely hinted at in the first book because I wanted the MC developed on her own first, then they’re just learning to be friends in the second), but when I get to the romance stage I’m planning on using all five of them, so it speaks to the reader no matter which the reader likes best. The five are: words of affection, giving gifts, quality time, service, and physical touch.

    • Well, keeping in mind that I have basically no experience in this area, here’s my thoughts. (I have next to no experience myself, but know plenty of people who have.)
      It isn’t really so odd to like someone on the spot. Especially if their good looking. And if you find out their nice, and if they like you in return, well, then you’re set for a friendship, and friendships can evolve, especially if the two are attracted to each other.
      Also, if one person noticed a trait they respect in another person, that is a pretty good way to have someone gain interest in someone else. My dad met my mum when she worked in the kitchen in a camp they were both staying at. He was impressed by her work ethic. My dad himself has about the strongest work ethic you could ever wish to see, and yes, you can actually SEE it, he’s a good, hard worker. So my mum impressed him. One thing led to another and they got married and had six kids.
      A good thing to encourage romance is lots ofreporters. Dad and Mum had lots of mutual friends (Daddy took care to make good friends with her brother) and Mum’s friends watched Dad like so many hawks. They were constantly bringing reports to her. “He said you were pretty.” “Just a bit ago he pointed at you and pretended to swoon.” etc. etc.
      So I guess that’s my two cents. It isn’t necessarily a bad thing for someone to fall in love with someone else rather quickly. It happens all the time. The reason so many people are against it is because of insta-love, in which you look at a person who usually posses god-like good looks, and immediately start to obsess over them and somehow the other person digns to acknowledge your existence, and all at once everything is perfect…and so on.
      My parents liked each other from the start, but everything wasn’t perfectly smooth sailing. My grandpa actually refused my dad’s offer of marriage the first time around.

      • I think scene-time (how often they are shown together in the story) matters more than actual time. I knew my husband four months before we were married. It sounds short, but it was made up of lots of time together during those four months. If you look at Frozen, Anna falls in love with Hans after a single meeting–about five or ten minutes of screen time. We can see how that wasn’t really love, yet not many people question her and Kristoff’s love even though they only spent a couple days together. Why? Because they spent most of the movie together so we could see them interacting. How much time do Char and Ella spend together? They meet at the funeral, they have a couple encounters, they exchange letters–probably less than 24 hours in total, but because it takes up plenty of space in book time we’re willing to believe it.

  7. Well, I didn’t think I would ever say this but…I FINISHED MY JACK AND ELSA FANFICTION STORY!!! All I have to do is make a few copies, and my friends will finally be able to see it! (This is the first book I wrote to make it into the “publishing” phase.)
    Thank you for everyone who’s helped me with the writing process. I really appreciated your help! : )

  8. Oh my goodness! REGGIE IS ADORABLE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I just want to hug him! You are lucky to have such a hilarious doggy! Oh no! I just realized something….. REGGIE HAS MADE THE WATER GUN OF DOOOOOM!! Don’t get sprayed 😉

  9. Me and my friend Danielle are doing a school project on authors that we really like. I am reading your book fairest and really like it. We would like to ask some questions like your personal journey through life, who or what inspired you, your favourite book growing up and your favourite book that you wrote.

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