Challenging Choices

First off, congrats to all of you who are starting the NaNoWriMo home stretch! How has it gone so far? How is it going now? If you like, post your answer in the voice of one of your characters and them paste it in your story, which will be fun for the rest of us. (I don’t want you to lose word count!)

On September 11, 2019, Writing Ballerina wrote, Question for you guys: When you have a lot of story ideas, how do you pick which one to develop?

As with the last post, a lot of discussion ensued.

Jenalyn Barton: Honestly, I pick whichever one excited me the most at the moment. Not the most sustainable approach (and likely the reason I have trouble finishing things), but it works for me.

Erica: Either all of them or none of them! Really, it depends on the time of year. I’ve been writing short stories to give my family as presents for a while now, so I often consider who would like what story. You might try something similar. (Also makes sure that I don’t just forget about it.)

future_famous_author: My friends, who read my stories, but have trouble keeping up, get really mad at me for starting a story and stopping only a couple pages in. I start a new story almost every day now. It’s a problem. I think that if you can find a story that you actually enjoy writing, then just force yourself to stick with it. It’s not everyday you find an idea that really holds your interest, and so you have to stick with them. It can be hard, and my brother and I have had many arguments about which is harder, basketball or writing, but you just have to remind yourself that it’s fun. I really struggle with this, too, and have yet to finish a novel in my six years of writing.

Writing Ballerina: I like the idea of giving them as presents! Thank you! Tell your brother that writing’s definitely harder.

Kit Kat Kitty: This is something I’ve struggled with for a long time. My best advice would be to write everything down as soon as possible. Usually, what happens to me is that I’ll get an idea, think about it for a day, write a paragraph or two, and then start from scratch with another idea the next day. I think it’s because I don’t develop my ideas, so I don’t get really invested in them. If I had characters, names, faces, and some fragments of a world, it gives me something to focus on and be interested in.

So I’d recommend developing the first idea that comes to mind, and seeing where it takes you. If the idea is “What if people were once dragons?” Then write that down, and branch off from that. Stories are really just multiple ideas combined into one. (Though it’s a lot more complicated than that) So it could be, “What if some humans knew this, and wanted to become dragons again for evil purposes.” Then, it could turn into, “What if the hero had to figure out how to become a dragon first to stop them, but if they became a dragon, they wouldn’t know how to become human again, so they might have to leave their family and X love interest behind, even though their family means everything to them.”

Just stick with it, and try to focus on one thing. Write things down, and don’t be afraid to say: “This isn’t working for me.” and move onto another idea.

It’s also okay to be developing an idea and to write down as many ideas that come during that time. It’s about not letting the ideas float away, and really making them more than just a sentence or two. Ideas are, in a lot of cases, a dime a dozen. And if one doesn’t work (after you develop it, of course) then it’s okay to move on. Besides, if you at least write things down, you can come back to them later.

future_famous_author: A lot of times I end up writing down a page or two of a story and then starting a different one. I wish I would do that and then go back to the one I had before that. But, then, it’s better than having no ideas.

I love, love, love Kit Kat Kitty’s “what if people were once dragons” idea, whether or not it ever becomes a story. It’s so much fun to contemplate what that might have been like, the literal fire in the belly, the joy in flaming. And flying! The pleasure in terrifying other creatures who aren’t dragons.

And fun is wonderful. If it’s fun to try out lots of ideas, then that’s a fine thing to do. Relaxing and waiting for the one that will sustain us is okay. I think that one will come.

Early twentieth century novelist Thomas Mann once said, “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” If I were to try basketball, it would have to be in the under-five-feet-tall league, so I can’t compare the two, but for me (and for many but I don’t think all) writing a novel is super hard. I don’t know why that is–we know how to form words and sentences, and we know hundreds of good stories, and we understand story shape, but yowser!

So we can take comfort in the absolute fact that we’re rising to a challenge when we write.

As you know, I’ve recently started my next novel, which is based on Greek mythology, the prophetess Cassandra, the Trojan War, and the fall of Troy, plus the warlike Amazons who come to Troy’s aid. Before I started, I went through a process of considering which of my ideas to work on. Here’s what happened, which may help with your own process, too:

I’d like to write more books about the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and I continue to read on the subject, but I haven’t yet found the right story thread.

The fairy tale “Aladdin” has interested me for years, and I wrote pages of notes about how I might approach it, but what stymied me is that Aladdin and the princess are married for most of the tale, which I think lessens the story’s appeal for young readers. I hope to figure out how to deal with that, but so far I haven’t. Maybe Disney has solved this, but I stay away from Disney movies because I don’t want their solutions to get into my consciousness and make me, unintentionally, use something of theirs.

The myth “Cupid and Psyche” and the related fairy tale “East of the Sun, West of the Moon” fascinate and irritate me, which is usually a combination that gets me writing, but in this case, I’m stuck. In both, the heroine is made to think the owner of the castle is a monster, and her sisters and mother are made to appear jealous when they warn her against him. One source of irritation is because I think the sisters and mother are probably genuinely alarmed for her. They have every reason to believe she’s in danger, and they’ve gotten a bum rap for centuries!

The other source comes from the hero, and this is the one that has me stumped. The hero, who’s either in monster shape or is pretending to be a monster, is deliberately causing the girl he loves to be frightened, to make a choice for the sake of her family that she wouldn’t make otherwise, and even to see them let her make it. In my opinion, this guy is seriously flawed, and I haven’t yet figured out a way to forgive him and make him likable.

What I love about these stories is the wind that our heroine flies on, and the love story aspect.

As for, Cassandra and Troy, I hope I’ve thought of ways to work out the kinks, but I’m worried that I’ve chosen wrong. The fall of Troy and all that happens before it falls is tragic, and I have to thread my story through the misery.

The point of all this is that, even as a pantser, I think a lot about what I’m going to write before I jump in. I always fail to catch everything, but I try to anticipate the problems that will pop up along the way. So that’s the first strategy: even if we don’t outline, we think deeply about our story before we jump in–which may be hard. If you’re like me, you enjoy the writing, and planning is as unpleasant as standing on a mile-long line at the supermarket.

I wrote up to here on the train to New York City, and while I was walking in Central Park, this post walked with me, and I came up with the steps that I seem to follow from idea to story.

First, boing! the idea. Excitement about the idea, and turning it over and upside down and inside out in my mind. This is the necessary first step. The others can arrange themselves in whatever order works best for you.

Second, notes in the what-if stage that Kit Kat Kitty describes. More boing! moments as we discover what delights us and where our story might go.

Third, notes about characters who can carry our story, who will take it in the direction we want it to go. Like, with the dragon idea, would we want an arsonist as an MC? Maybe, maybe not. Do we want someone who’s afraid of heights? Afraid of getting angry? Angry all the time? The answer will depend somewhat on where the story is going.

Four (not everyone needs this one, but I do), a tentative ending, which involves knowing what the major story problem is and how it might be resolved, happily or not.

Last, notes about where to start.

Begin!

Going through these steps, I think, will get us to a story we can stick with, at least for a while.

After that comes patience, the virtue writers need most. Do basketball players need patience? Just wondering.

Here are four prompts:

∙ Let’s suppose the humans in a story used to be fairies, but somehow their wands were taken from them, and they need them again, or the MC does. Try the steps above and begin the story. If you like, keep going.

∙ Find a fairy tale or myth that both fascinates and annoys you. Follow the steps. If the first fairy tale turns out not to be story material, try another one. Keep going until you find one that leads you on to a beginning. Write the story.

∙ Using Erica’s method, think of a friend or a family member and the kind of story he would like. Follow the steps and write the story.

∙ Think of someone you know–friend, frenemy, or villain–and build your story about aspects of that person. Write the story.

  1. The story I’m working on for NaNoWriMo this year has an MC who’s actually a sort of “Aladdin meets Jean Grey meets Jason Bourne”, character if I had to describe her, although it is more of Disney’s Aladdin. She starts out stealing on the streets to survive, but there’s no genie’s lamp in the first book (maybe in one of the others, though…).
    If Fidda (my MC) were to answer how it’s going this year, it would look like this:

    ‘”I don’t know.” She shrugs. (thinks: ‘What is it they want to know? Who in the desert are these people, anyway?”)

  2. Writing Ballerina says:

    Man, I’m just dominating the blog, here! The last three posts have been either my problems or a problem I thought was worth a post.
    I love those prompts and the entire post! Thanks!
    Fun fact: if I remember correctly, I asked this question when I was trying to decide what idea I should use for NaNoWriMo.
    Speaking of, ack! I’m behind 20 000 words!! Help! Does anyone have any catch-up tactics?

    • Word sprints! Set a timer for 15 minutes, turn on some epic sounding music, and write doggedly for the full 15 minutes. You’ll find you have a lot of words in that time, and if you do enough sprints, you’ll finish your daily word count in no time.

      Another catch up idea: write in more than one session a day. You’ll find that even after it feels like you’ve exhausted your daily creativity, you still have a lot of energy to write another thousand words or so by the time you do another session in the evening.

      • Writing Ballerina says:

        Thank you very much! This helped!
        And even though I didn’t reach 50k, (my final count was 31648), I still had a blast!

  3. Kit Kat Kitty says:

    Thanks for mentioning my idea! I never used it, but now that I think about it…
    Anyway, this was really fun to read and helpful. And changing the humans were dragons to humans were faires was a very interesting twist!

    • future_famous_author says:

      Also, it would explain the reason that all humans want to be able to fly- because they were once dragons!

      But why are we afraid of heights, if we were once dragons? Would that have something to do with the reason that we aren’t dragons any longer?

  4. Boy, do I agree that writing a novel is super hard! I’m having a new problem with this one, and I’d love to know if anybody else has had it, and what you did about it.

    Have you ever lost track of time in the story? The WIP has 2 POV characters, and they started off in the morning. Then X happened, and they got separated, and A, B, and C happened to Character 1, while D, E, and F happened to Character 2.

    About 10,000 words in, I said “Wait! How much time has passed? Is it day or night? Did A, B, and C take the same amount of time to happen as D, E, and F?”

    I’m so confused! I’ve tried calendars, side-by-side notebook pages, Word files.. And eventually, C1 and C2 are going to have to meet again. .How do you keep track of who’s doing what, where, and when? Thanks!

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      Has happened to me more than once. I’ve gotten confused and flummoxed and finally thought I had it right when the manuscripts went to the publisher, only to be told by the copy editors that I didn’t. I can’t do a post on this because I don’t have an answer. Anyone have a system?

      • At least I know I’m in good company!

        Book 2 is proving more challenging than Book 1, mostly because of the dual-protagonist thing. I’ve salvaged it so far by going back and putting in references to the sun’s position, and one character commenting “You’ve had a long day.”

        The fact that serpent-demons only sleep after they eat, and that they only eat every few weeks, is going to make things even more complicated. Maybe I should be relieved that no one’s offered to buy Book 1 yet. 🙂

    • Writing Ballerina says:

      I have this problem sometimes, and often put it off until the revising stage.

      Unfortunately I’ve never gotten to the revising stage.

      But I’d say make a timeline (on paper is probably the easiest way to do it). You can make two timelines side by side (one for Character 1, the other for Character 2) if that helps you visualize it better.
      Also beta readers might help.

    • I have the opposite problem. I tend to skip ahead in time unrealistic amounts to have whatever lighting I think is best for the scene, or just because I want to say another day has passed.

    • future_famous_author says:

      I have found that I actually don’t have this problem!

      I’m going to explain what I did, and see if this helps any of you, but I can’t say for sure as I have never had this problem. And, if I have, I was too young to care or realize that it was a problem.

      I use Google Calendar for everyday things such as homework and family stuff, and so I use a separate color to put the dates that will happen in my story. I also decided to set my story in November, using the same days of the week as those dates were this year. Going based on the time of year now has confused me a bit, as I typically stick to summer, but it has also helped because I can put the dates into my calendar and just look back at them.

      The only thing I can say for changing POVs is that maybe just have the next character take back where the other character left off in the day. Don’t skip a day between chapters, do it in the chapter, and maybe keep a log of what happened, what time of day, on what day of the week, and what date (if you know what date) and what character was talking in that part of the book.

      Hope this helps, as I have never tried the part about POVs and I’m not sure how much a calendar will work for you all as it has for me!

    • I’ve had this problem as well, and it’s even more difficult to keep track of because my characters are in different timezones- the protagonists are off in England, while two secondary characters on a subplot are in India, and then the antagonist is in Japan! Mostly, I try and get through it by avoiding timestamps whenever possible- not saying that it’s afternoon if that’s not required, and things like that. It’s probably best to keep your characters lined up in time- you can add filler, or say that an amount of time has passed, to keep them together.

  5. I’m having a bit of trouble with my WIP. It’s about a king and queen who have twin baby girls. One is a lovely, adorable baby; the other is deformed. When the queen sees the ugly baby, she goes crazy and wants it gotten rid of. The king takes it to another woman so she can raise it. Fine. Except then I went and made this whole backstory explaining why they had to get married. It wasn’t because they loved each other. Now I really like both of them and can’t imagine them doing something so horrible. How do I make them sympathetic; or how do I reconcile myself to their actions?

  6. Writing Cat Lover says:

    I have a problem: my story has no spine. It’s kind of like this ongoing thing. I mean, it has a plot, but it looks like the more I go on, the farther away the ending, or even the climax is.

    • Writing Ballerina says:

      If you’re stuck on where to go next, talk the plot over with some inanimate buddy. Like a teddy bear.
      (even better if you have a platypus shaped teddy! You can call them a plot-a-pus and they should help even more than a regular bear!) and walk it through your plot. That should help clear things up in your own head and give you a place to go next.
      You could also make a list of what needs to happen next, if you don’t already have an outline, and get on the next plot point as soon as possible!
      You can even skip until the next major plot point adn then go back and fill it in later; there’s no rule that says a book has to be written chronologically.

  7. Border_Collie4 says:

    My problem is that I get too many ideas. I get really into one, write about it, then get really into another – and leave the first one behind. For example, I was writing a story about a family with a difficult backstory (on the mother’s side), then a story about a group who are fighting for justice….., now I’m writing a story with a pirate girl spying on a rival ship with a secret mission! *And* I feel guilty that I left the last two hanging.
    What should I do?

    • Writing Ballerina says:

      A lot of the blog post will apply to you then. I, who asked the question, also get too many ideas, and feel sorta guilty for not finishing them.
      (That’s actually the main reason I did NaNoWriMo this year– I wanted to finish something. (Hehe that’s not working out too well but there’s still time.))

      Also, I like your username!

    • I have that too! What I sometimes do is let the stories sit but still think about them occasionally. Then, if I have a really great idea for them (or think I do) I’ll pull it out and work on it for a while. If it really is a great idea, I’ll keep working on it. But yeah, finishing stories is hard.

    • When I’m excited about a story idea, I write down a brief (or not so brief…) summary of it in a Word document I have titled “Story ideas”. That way I can get all the exciting parts down on the page and I won’t be worried about forgetting them and in the future when I’m done with the story I’m on I can skim through the document and find one I’m motivated about.

      • Border_Collie4 says:

        Hmm, that sounds like a good idea. I use a Word doc for extra pieces I like but don’t fit on with the story I’m writing, but I never thought to use one for ideas!

  8. Writing Ballerina says:

    I feel like a related question has been asked before, but I’m not sure… Sorry for the duplicate if it has.

    Anyway, I have to write a poem prophecy for my WIP. I’m sorta thinking Drualt-type sorta thing (speaking of, I should revisit the Bamarre books to pick up on tips) except I believe Drualt is more of a celebration of a great hero that once lived while my prophecy is meant to foretell of a great hero that has yet to be born.
    Does anyone have any tips?

    • Kit Kat Kitty says:

      I feel with prophecies, things are usually vaguer. When it tells of something that has happened, it includes names. For example, in The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre, it states specifically *spoilers* that Drualt carried Bruce the child King. It states two names, because the event has already happened, so we know who they are.
      However, if the poem had been a prophecy, it might not have said the names. It would’ve stated the characters, a hero, and what he would do. It could be as vague as you want. It will tell of what is to come without names or even places. It might describe specific details about the hero (In Drualt’s case he would be young, and part of the oppressed people he saves.)
      Generally, I think prophecies can be tricky. I’d ask myself: How much do I want the reader to know? How do I want to convey the information? In a confusing way, or in a clear but easily debated way? Or do I want to straight out say what will happen?
      I know it’s not much, but I hope that helps.
      (I would also recommend looking at books that have Prophecies. Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn comes to mind, but you will have to look through the book to find it. I think.)

    • Border_Collie4 says:

      I agree with Kit Kat Kitty: prophecies, in books that I’ve read, are usually very vague. They don’t go into details much and are usually mysterious. Like in – SPOILER! – The Two Princesses of Bamarre, the prophesy made about when the cure to Grey Death would be found is “When cowards find courage and rain fell all over Bamarre,”. A “coward” could be many things, and rain could come in the rainy season. A lot of prophesies are vague like this – they’re usually understood when they actually happen. Then they make a lot of sense! (I haven’t done it yet, but I think I’ll probably need to write a prophesy in a story I’m writing, so I could use some good tips!)

    • The Wings of Fire books (middle school and up) are all about how prophecies are solved. You don’t even have to read them to find the prophecy. The beginning pages are outlined in black, and the prophecy is the last one before the “Part One” page. And they’re really good prophecies, too. The kind where all the readers come up with all kinds of theories about how they’re going to be solved. So, I would advise looking there. I can’t offer much advise on the actual writing part, though, because my attempts have been utterly terrible.

      • Adding on to that, just for an excuse to talk about Wings of Fire- the original series does a really good job at subverting prophecy tropes, actually! It turns out (SPOILERS) that the prophecy’s made up, so the NightWings can have control over which queen wins this civil war that’s been going on. If you look back at it, you can see all kinds of hints to that.

        Like other people said, it’s good if you keep your prophecy vague! Maybe if you introduced a side character that also fit the prophecy critera, and kept your readers guessing at who would be the hero…

        In general, I like stuff that plays with prophecy tropes, like Wings of Fire which I’ve mentioned, and Trials of Apollo (which includes prophecies in a bunch of poetic forms- including a limerick, still haven’t managed to repress that one out of my brain- and deals with the main characters trying to recover oracles.) You might not want to do something like that, though.

  9. Border_Collie4 says:

    Can anyone tell me where to find the post with the “NaNoWriMo” thing? I’m really sorry if this is inconvenient, but I’m new to this post, and I want to catch up on this project (I think?)

  10. Border_Collie4 says:

    Oh ok. Thanks. I’m just not really sure what it is. I’ve just seen a lot of comments with people talking about their characters for NaNoWriMo, and I was just wondering what it’s about.
    Thanks anyway!

  11. Border_Collie4 says:

    I’m trying to look for the right words for the characteristics of an important character I’m working on. His name is Beak, and he’s part of this group of kids whose motives are kind of like those of the Patriots in the American Revolution. I know what his personality’s like, but I can’t find the right words. This is a conversation between Beak and Fred (also part of the group of kids) :
    Beak: *grumbles* Can’t we just light a matchstick or something?
    Fred: *Shakes his head in the dark* It’s too dangerous. We cant risk being seen.
    Beak: be lighting a (imagine italics) matchstick? Yeah, right: some sleepy guards are going to see us from the (imagine italics) castle.
    Like, he means well. But he’s had a hard life: He’s always been 2nd to his older brother in his family, just because he doesn’t support the way Grimsby Kingdom does stuff. He has had a rough childhood so far.
    Here are some words I would use to describe him (although there are probably better ones) : introvert, well-meaning, sarcastic, thinker, secretly caring, quiet, prefers not to discuss – unless to criticize, mysterious, not open, a “closed-shut-with-glue book”, ect.
    His personality creates a kind of “comic relief” in the story for the readers. But what are some better words to describe him? Also, I need a good word to describe the enemy (like loyalists – they support the Kingdom though it is not really fair) and for my MC’s side (like Patriots – goes against unfair laws of kindom.)

    • Border_Collie4 says:

      not that the Loyalist’s side is bad, just that the enemy of my MC supports the Kingdom, like the Loyalists with the Britain.

    • For describing your character, words like sarcastic or snarky would be good! maybe not introvert or well-meaning, but everything else seems decent!

  12. I’m trying my hand at writing something that’s a riff off of the sequel to a Wizard of Oz, The Marvelous Land of Oz, and I don’t know how much I should change/keep- I’ve only ever done original ideas before! It being too similar probably won’t be a problem, because my version is going to be a graphic novel, but I don’t know how different I should make it. I’m not really a fan of some of the plot in the original, but when I tried to edit small bits I didn’t like, it threw the whole thing off and now it’s going on a completely different direction!

    • Border_Collie4 says:

      What kind of small bits? I’ve never tried basing a story of another one, but I might be able to help if I knew what parts you wanted and didn’t want.

      • The book was written in 1929, and there’s an antagonistic group that is lowkey a caricature of the woman’s sufferage movement- I started trying to take away some of those biases, plus flesh out one of the villians, Jinjur- but she turned out being both sympathetic and convincing, and she’s somehow got my MC to join her army! That’s pretty important for her (my MC’s) development- Jinjur acts as a bit of a mentor figure, letting my MC Ozma talk more openly about being trans and have some fun angst when Jinjur turns out to be evil and working with the witch that traumatized her :))). The problem is in the book Ozma’s fleeing the city with the Scarecrow, and that bit’s important too- so now she has to be in two places at once!

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