Tra la la

Happy new year! May we all have perfect vision, actually and metaphorically, in 2020! And may we have good writing!

A year or so ago I said here that I would occasionally write something about grammar and usage. Occasionally seemed to be never again, but I have a little rant before I launch the post. Many people misuse lie and lay, so many that eventually usage will probably change. But at this point the old way is still hanging on, and I came across a poem that may make lie easy to remember. It’s an unpleasant two-liner written hundreds of years ago by the English poet John Dryden (I don’t know if he was writing about his actual wife, which would be very sad.):

Here lies my wife: here let her lie.
Now she’s at rest, and so am I.

Lie is the present tense; lay is the past. I lie in bed now. I lay in bed last night. The usefulness of the poem is that if we’re confused, we can think of the poem and make sure our usage fits the rhyme.

What confuses everybody is that lay is present tense when it takes a direct object: The hen lays an egg today. (An egg is the direct object.) The hen laid an egg yesterday.

Onto the first post of the year!

On November 9, 2019, Erica wrote, I like to sing, and have a tendency to randomly start singing bits of songs as I feel like it. My question is, how do you include songs/poetry in a story and make it seem like a part of a character’s nature, rather than like it has to be significant to the plot?

And Sara wrote, My advice would be to have all the songs or poems be pretty different from each other, and pretty random (if that’s what your character is like). I think if your character repeated one song or poem the whole time, then people would expect it to be significant. If the songs or poems are well known in your world, maybe have other characters notice and point out when your character randomly brings them up. They can talk about it. I think if something is related to character bonding, then people will see it more in that way than in a plot way. If they’re making up their own little songs or poems, I would go for random, situation-specific ones, since doing that kind of thing is sorta unique and noticeable and cool. Another thing is to just have little snippets of different songs or poems, because when there’s some huge song or poem in a book, it really seems like it’s there for a huge plot thing. The most important thing, though, is to do it, however you’re going to do it, multiple times in different situations without exactly calling a bunch of attention to it. I think when you let the audience notice something, it comes off as really subtle and clever. And something can’t really be part of a character’s nature if they only do it once or twice.

Erica wrote back, Yes, what I was thinking of would just be snippets here and there. Part of the reason I want to include them is because the plot of the story itself is very serious and dense. Including songs helps keep it from seeming so overpowering.

I agree with Sara that, in general, if songs or poetry are in a story, they should appear more than once, and if they’re part of our MC’s character, they certainly should. They can be as short as a word or two, broken off when someone enters the room where she is. It’s terrific if singing helps define a character’s personality, and I think it can work well to lighten the mood of a book.

(My mother used to hum when she was angry. When my sister and I heard her hum, we would tread very carefully! If I made her into a character, the humming would help define her.)

I agree also that if there is only one song in a book, it will take on a lot of significance just by being the only one, which is fine if that’s what we want.

And I agree again that the selections should generally be short. Otherwise, they can stop the action, and some readers will jump over them.

Many of my books weave in songs or poetry: Ella Enchanted, Fairest, The Two Princesses of Bamarre, The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre, A Ceiling Made of Eggshells, Fairy Haven and the Quest for the Wand (though the poems are written in Mermish, the language of mermaids–with no consonants), Ever, Stolen Magic (limericks), The Fairy’s Return (in which the poems are entirely silly). Forgive Me, I Meant to Do It is a collection of humorous poems, and I offer advice on writing poems in Writer to Writer. And in the novel-without-a-title I’m working on now there’s a Greek chorus of crows, who comment and issue warnings in verse. (I love a good Greek chorus.) So I’ve used poems in lots of ways.

For me, writing them is slower than writing prose, because I’m thinking about elements I don’t pay a lot of attention to ordinarily, like assonance, alliteration, rhythm, and, once in a while, rhyme. A couple of editors have asked me to write a novel entirely in verse–until I’ve explained how long that would take.

Erica says that she sings song fragments when the mood strikes her. If we’re like Erica, we can pay attention to those moments when we sing and what gets us started, and we can give them to our MC.

We can think about what we know about our MC and how singing fits in. We can make a list!

∙ She sings when she’s nervous (or when she’s angry, like my mom).

∙ She sings to keep herself from stuttering.

∙ She sings when she’s happy and has to let out her joy, or to express any passing feeling.

∙ She sings because she knows it irritates a certain person.

∙ She sings to see how high or low a note she can hit.

∙ She sings the songs her dead mother loved.

As an early prompt, list at least three more possibilities.

We can also ask how and when she sings–loudly or almost inaudibly, in the presence of others or only when she’s alone or some combination of the two. Is she a good singer?

We can pick a few of these and they will become part of her. They’ll make the reader’s understanding of her more complex. We can create a secondary character who also sings, but at different times and for different reasons, and this will contribute to his character. We don’t have to have two singers, but if we do, we’ll even further solidify how singing can delineate character.

If she gives up singing or stops speaking and only sings, the reader will be affected, even worried, depending on what else is going on.

The singing might become integral to the plot, if we’re pantsers and our story isn’t entirely set. For example, suppose our MC is in a tight spot. Can we have her use song to improve her situation? Maybe she sings in her prison cell and gets better–or worse–treatment from the guards as a result. Or, since song carries better than speech, another prisoner may answer her in song. Their duets can remain defining character traits, or they can influence what happens (plot).

This is not the direction Erica wants to go in, but I–a pantser–love when things I toss in casually turn out to be useful for my plot. For example, when I made Addie talented at needlework in The Two Princesses of Bamarre, I had no idea that her skill would come in handy later on when she’s trapped in a dragon’s lair.

Here are three prompts. In them, there may be more song than Erica is going for:

∙ The two Disney versions and the Broadway show of “Cinderella” are musicals. They did it first, but you can, too. Your Cinderella loves to sing. Write a scene from the original fairy tale and include song snippets. Some may be in Cinderella’s thoughts rather than out loud. One may be sung softly, and one may be belted out. If you like, write your own “Cinderella.”

∙ “Lovely Ilonka,” which I’ve mentioned here at least once, is one of the weirdest fairy tales there is. You can read it for free online in Andrew Lang’s Crimson Fairy Book. (These adaptations are old enough to be in the public domain.) Here’s a link: Part of the story involves three maidens, each trapped in her own (of all things) bulrush. Write the scene when the prince plucks the bulrushes. Give each hidden maiden her own song or song snippet, which reveals her character. Show that each character is different through her song.

∙ To satisfy my continuing fascination with Rumpelstiltskin, make him the character who loves to sing. Write a scene in which you reveal his motivation, whether fair or foul, in song.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. How do you write songs and poetry? I’ve tried, and if it’s not a haiku I can’t manage. I just can’t seem to get more than a couple rhyming lines out, usually not even that. I can memorize poetry just fine, and make any rhymes I want (one of my characters blurts out anything that rhymes with the word she’s actually thinking of), I just can’t make those rhymes make sense most of the time. Or if I can, they don’t come out the way I want, and they don’t pass the message I want (or anything, really, they’re just a lot of impressive-sounding nonsense). Does anyone have any suggestions?

    • Why do you find a haiku easier than other poetry? If you can write haikus fairly easily, then I would recommend trying either limericks or free verse next, depending on what your precise difficulties are. If your problem is just that your rhymes don’t make sense, try either blank verse or free verse for your poems.

      • Thanks! I think haiku is easier for me because it doesn’t need to rhyme, just have a certain syllable structure. Probably free verse would be easier than limerick, right?

        I’ll try free verse next time the poetical urge strikes. I never really considered it before because, though it does feel like poetry when I read it, not-rhyming non-haiku never seems to come to mind when I think of writing poetry. Thanks again!

  2. I’ve been wondering- how do I write an omniscient POV? I’ve got no trouble with first person, and I actually really love writing in close 3rd person, but it feels odd writing when I don’t have a character’s voice to go on. It comes off as a bit bland, too- I can’t make this character ramble on anxiously about something, or that character analyze everything she thinks. The best stories told that way I’ve read have a really clear narrative style (The Fairyland books, A Series of Unfortunate Events) and I’d likee to know how to have that without being in a character’s head.

    • If it helps, (and this may be a rabbit trail that has nothing to do with your problem) I would argue that A Series of Unfortunate Events isn’t omniscient, it’s written from the viewpoint of an outside observer. We stay inside Lemony Snicket’s head throughout the series, and it’s his voice and his perspective that we see the characters through. I haven’t read the Fairyland books, though, so I don’t know how the author did it there. The only actual comment I have as to writing an omniscient narrator is to think of a movie camera. In TV shows, we almost never hear a character’s thoughts, but we still get to know them and understand why they do things.

    • I also have problems with omniscient POV, but in the opposite direction. I tend to get too much into my character’s heads, so that all of my critique partners have mistaken my omniscient POV for close 3rd person, and then pointed out my head-hopping.

      The way I see it, omniscient POV should the voice of a third-party storyteller that remains consistent throughout, rather than the voice of any specific character. It helps for me to think of the omniscient “voice” as my own personal voice; as if I were telling a story to my friends. Even if I’m telling different stories with different content, my way of talking, vocabulary, mannerisms, etc. will remain the same. When I have a character’s direct thoughts, I’ll use their voice, but for general narration, I’ll use my own.

      I agree that A Series of Unfortunate Events isn’t exactly a standard 3rd person omniscient POV, although it does have some characteristics. In that book, I’d say that the narrator themselves actually has enough character and personality that it’s more like 1st person from their POV, it’s just that the narrator happens to be someone other than the main character. I think Terry Pratchett’s DISCWORLD series (My favorite is Guards! Guards! and I’d recommend starting with that one instead of The Colour of Magic, which I personally found to be a little boring) is a great example of voice-y 3rd person omniscient (as well as a really really good book as a whole; Pratchett is a master of so many writing skills, and is just incredible in general). The different chapters with different characters don’t have different “voices”, but the whole thing has a very strong “voice”. It also has some great examples of switching between a “distant” omniscient perspective to a “closer” one.

      • Gail Carson Levine says:

        My “Princess Tales” are in third person omniscient, which I love, because it’s so powerful. You CAN jump into anyone’s head and show all the worms and oddities that live there. I sometimes run into a problem that similar to Raina’s, though, in that I get so interested in everyone that the story slows to molasses. With third person omniscient, we have to control ourselves!

    • Thanks so much for the advice! I was referring to A Series Of Unfortunate Events as omniscent because we do get to go into characters’ heads besides Lemony- we get to know what Violet and Klaus are thinking a lot of the time!

      @Katie W.- you should read the books! They’re very good! The narrator comes off as mischievous, and overly describes a lot of things so their narration feels really pretty and flowery.

      Writing in my own personal voice helped a lot, though I kept going into characters’ own voice and point of view by accident. (I’m writing the first draft, so I figure I’ll deal with that when I edit!)

      I’ve read about half of the Hogfather, half of Good Omens, and all of Equal Rites- so a bit erratic, but I do like his books!!

    • future_famous_author says:

      A story that I started a couple weeks ago (I left it with only a few pages, I’m about halfway through a draft for my first book and just needed to get the idea on paper) was in third person omniscient. Well, sort of. If it’s still called that when it’s only two characters that the reader knows the thoughts of, then that’s what it was. But it was tricky. When I was writing about Ley’s (one of the MCs) thoughts, I felt like I should write as though I didn’t know Keli’s (the other MC) thoughts. It was confusing.

  3. Also, anyone know of some good free-to-enter science fiction/fantasy/poetry writing contests? I can do fantasy stories between 5,000 and 10,000 words, science fiction up to 65,000, and poetry between 8 and 30 lines. Thanks in advance for your suggestions!

  4. Hi Ms. Levine! I’ve got a bit of a long-winded question. Several years ago, when I was an exceptionally awkward young teenager, you were kind enough to answer a few of my questions. Now I’ve graduated college and am slowly but surely overcoming my writer’s burnout (I’ve got an anthropology degree, so I did almost nothing but write for 4 years). I’ve finally decided that I want to try to write fiction seriously again! But I have a problem that I can’t figure out how to get over.

    Back when I was first asking you questions, I believed in my writing. I knew it wasn’t great and that I had lots to improve on, but I had confidence that I was a storyteller and that people would want to read what I had to say. Now that’s completely gone.

    A large portion of it comes from having the worst imaginable Comp 2 professor freshman year. She would do things like spend required office hours yelling at me that my work was terrible without giving advice for improvement or ask questions in class and berate me for answering them. I struggled to write all through college after that, and the standard microaggressions from being a Native woman only made it worse.

    I still love my characters, but now the only potential I can see in my writing is the potential for people to hate it. I’ve still had encouragement from friends, and even other professors, whose opinions I honestly respect a lot more. Heck, even the tutor I tried to take a Comp 2 paper to told me that the awful professor was just being cruel! But I can’t find it in me to have confidence in any part of my writing anymore.

    I was going through some of my old stuff (I still always save what I write!), and I saw a lot of things I had written off of your prompts. I figured that if anyone could help me, it’s the writer who made me believe I could be a storyteller in the first place. How do I get that back?

    Thank you for everything!

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      There’s a book! WRITING ON BOTH SIDES OF THE BRAIN by Henriette Anne Klauser is about exactly this–the negative voice in our brains that tells us whatever we do stinks. It was more helpful to me than any other when I started writing seriously, and I’ve gone back to it a zillion times over the years.

      When I’m writing, I try to never make judgments about my writing on a global level–just specifics: work on pacing, smooth out this sentence, a little word repetition going on here. Never that what I’m writing isn’t any good.

    • You can also try it NaNoWriMo-style. For one month, you write everything down, good or bad, and you’re not allowed to edit. Our local group leaders print out pictures of little gremlins to represent our “inner editors”, and they lock them up in a box at the beginning. You ignore the critical voice inside you and just throw things out. I’ve heard it described as making a pile of sand. Only once you’ve got a big sand pile do you start shaping it into a pretty castle. It works for some people. You might give it a try.

    • When I get discouraged, I remember why I started writing in the first place. So far, most of my stuff has been middle grade and young adult. And when I started, I was that age and those were the stories that fascinated me, the stories I wanted to read. Now when I get to thinking that my book is too far fetched, or has a too perfect ending, or a too cliched premise, I try to put myself back into my twelve-year-old self. If my book would have pleased me as a twelve-year-old, then that’s all it needs to do. And chances are, it will please other twelve-year-olds as well. Their parents might roll their eyes, but what does it matter if the intended audience loves it?

      I guess what I’m saying is, write for yourself. Ask yourself if you, or rather, a pre-college version of yourself likes it. If so, that’s all you need for now. And most likely you won’t be alone in enjoying it.

    • I’m sorry about you had to go through that with your comp teacher, and I hope you find the motivation and confidence to write again soon! One saying/advice I really like is “everything we can control, is under control”. Writing is a tough business with so many variables, but ultimately the only things you can really control are the books you write. No matter what you do, there’s no guarantee that you’ll get published, or that readers will love your books, or that you’ll achieve whatever external goal you have for your writing (though I sincerely hope that you and everyone else will, and I believe in you!). All you can do is improve your own craft, by learning and reading and writing continuously, which it seems like you’re already doing. Sometimes the publishing process feels like throwing spaghetti against a moving target, and while there’s a lot of factors beyond your control in the scenario and luck plays a big part, if you keep practicing and keep trying, you are pretty much guaranteed to get BETTER at aiming, even if you don’t hit. And even if the change is minuscule, each word you write improves your skill, which in turn improves your overall chances of hitting something eventually.

      And though it might be hard sometimes to keep this mindset, I think it’s important to remember that you’ll never be able to please everyone. Even the most popular books have their critics. Just write what you love to the best of your ability and keep striving to get better. You’ll never be perfect, nobody will, but you ARE enough, for whatever value of “enough” strikes your fancy. And I’m sure that one day you’ll find an audience who loves your work as much as you do.

  5. A few days ago I woke up with a much better opening for the WIP in my head. I got down some of it before Real Life interrupted, but not all of it, and the rest has faded. Any ideas on how to get it back? Thanks!

  6. I have a problem like this. I start singing or imagining randomly. Fun Fact: I imagine in book form. I am always singing or something. Mostly Hamilton

  7. So I have an idea for a book but it’s not complete. I really want to start writing this book but I have no main idea yet. It’s about a family and the older brother leaves for college which makes the younger kids sad because the older brother used to be the “leader”. Now it’s up to the second oldest(who is 15) to figure out how to entertain the younger kids for the winter with the parents being gone for work often. (The kids are homeschooled so they have quite some time on their hands)
    Do you have any tricks or tips for how to come up with a main idea?

    • Writing Ballerina says:

      As it is, this sounds like an idea that could work for a short story. Simple, not many characters, and fairly easy to resolve in minimal scenes. If you want to make it into a longer novel, consider the three main types of conflict to help expand your idea (I’m going to turn to my trusty book STORY TRUMPS STRUCTURE by Steven James. This book is amazing, get it ;D):
      1. Internal (eg. jealousy, shutting people out, bitterness, etc)
      2. External (basically some sort of antagonist, be it an actual being or something like a war or apocalypse, etc)
      3. Interpersonal (the conflict between characters. Like if the MC hated their youngest sister)
      Figuring out what these conflicts are can help you find the main idea.

      Also consider these questions, which are the foundation of any story:
      1. What does the character want?
      2. What is coming between the character and prohibiting him from attaining his desire?

      Also, to find the inciting incident, you have three options:
      1. The MC has what he desires, and it’s stripped from him
      2. Show the MC what he desires most, then dangle it in front of him.
      3. Force what he dreads upon him, and make him escape from it.

      Hope this helps!

      • Thank you! It was very helpful and kinda got my brain moving! I am honestly more of a short story type person but when I have the patience I write longer stories. I was hoping this one could be in between. Around 80-100 pages (My short stories are normally about 5-20 pages). I will definitely try your idea!

  8. How do you format letters in your writing? I think italics and indented paragraphs (essentially a tab on every line) are standard, but in one of my stories, I have the MC commenting on the letter as she’s reading it, so there are italicised thoughts mixed in with the letter. I added a blank line above and below the pieces of the letter, but I was wondering if there were another way to do it. (And I would demonstrate what I’m talking about if the comment box would let me, but it won’t.)

    • Writing Ballerina says:

      I recalled there being some letters in ELLA, so I opened my old copy and found the letter exchange between Char and Ella (Chapter 24 if you want to look it up yourself).
      Mrs. Levine formatted it by using a different font (and I think italics, I wasn’t sure), and widening the margins, so the letter paragraphs were narrower than the rest of the story. She had thought breaks and letter-writer changes, and when she did so she did a double paragraph break and returned to the old font and margin setting.
      However, her breaks in letters were fairly long, not single-sentence thoughts (there may have been a couple single sentences between letters, but those were to signify a change in who wrote the letter). For those, I think I’ve seen it done where the author would un-italicize and put the thought in brackets (keeping the thought in the same paragraph as the rest of the letter).

      Hope this makes sense (it’s hard to explain without being able to demonstrate) and hope it helps!

      • Gail Carson Levine says:

        Writing Ballerina, thanks for looking! That’s the general idea of what I do: indent and then un-indent. I’ve never changed the font–that’s the publisher’s doing.

  9. Hi Gail, I think the spam filter might be eating up my comments because a couple comments I posted aren’t showing up. Do you know if there’s something wrong with my email/account/comments? Thanks!

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      Hi, Raina, This is weird. I don’t see them on the comments page. If you try to post more than–I think–two links, the filter kicks in, and I get notified.But I didn’t get notified. Just in case, if you were suggesting several links, can you post them separately? And please try again.

      • Thanks for checking! I tried posting a few more comments but they still didn’t go through, then I switched to using a different email and that seemed to fix it. Maybe it’s something on my end, but for now I’ll probably switch between two accounts for comments depending on which one is working.

  10. Ms. Levine, I just wanted to thank you for your novels, your books of how to write and this blog. Your advises help me a lot. Sorry if I write something wrong: English is not my first language. I am from Argentina, I speak Spanish. When I and my twin sister were kids, we bought Ella enchanted (in Spanish: El mundo encantado de Ela) and Two princesses of Bamarre (Dos princesas sin miedo) and we really loved them (though we cried at the end of Two princesses). I haven’t found the Spanish version of your other novels, which is a pity.

    I also have a question. I’ve started a novel but I’ve got stuck.

    I’ve got the two MCs defined and a less detailed image of other characters. I have an idea of the conflict. I know what the MCs want and, of course, is related to the conflict. I want the characters to grow, to get better, to overcome themselves and I want the conflict to push them in that direction. The problem is that, though I know what the villain wants, I can’t picture what he would do to try to achieve it and, in consequence, the obstacles the MCs are going to have to fight.

    Some months ago I wrote the first chapter. And I couldn’t start the second because there’s going to be a conversation that’s going to introduce the main girl to the conflict. And I don’t know how to do that conversation because there are a lot of things that I haven’t decide (or found out) about the conflict yet. Specially because I am not a very political or strategic person so I don’t know what a man who wants to obtain a place of power would do to achieve it (the villain).

    Also there’s magic in this world, for the main masculine character is a mage. And the girl is very artistic. So I want to focus on things that I really like, like magic and art, and bravery, heroicity and magnanimity. But there is a politics conflict and they care. They want to bring the true king back to the throne, though it may be difficult and dangerous.

    I don’t know what to do. Any advises?

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