Repainting the Big Picture

This is Raina’s second question after my appeal for questions, written on December 4, 2019: How do you approach fixing big-picture story issues that run throughout the entire book (characterization, worldbuilding, voice, theme, etc. Especially characterization) without rewriting the whole book? To use an analogy, I’ve always thought of plot issues like working on a Lego project (everything is connected, but each scene is more or less a discrete part, and many times fixing the issue is just a matter of rearranging the blocks or adding/subtracting/”remaking” new ones), small scale, line-edits like sanding/finishing a woodworking project (you get up close and fix little things one at a time with relative ease), and big-picture issues like a single (or multiple) wrong thread in a knitting project: one bad yarn runs through the entire thing, connected to everything else, and it’s embedded so deep that it’s impossible to pull out the yarn without unraveling the entire thing. Any tips?

A few of you responded.

Erica: I don’t know. I really hate editing my stories (no idea why), and so when I have big problems like that, I usually just start over.

NerdyNiña: No, but I love your analogies.

future_famous_author: Maybe just read it over one time fixing one specific mistake? If your story is really long, though, I’m not sure how you would go about that.

I, too, am a fan of Raina’s analogies. The knitting analogy is particularly great when it comes to characterization (I’m assuming this is a major character), because character and plot are, so to speak, woven together.

Sometimes the problem is that our character isn’t by nature someone who will follow the track of our plot. When a plot turn has to happen, he’s forced to do things he wouldn’t, often things that unpleasantly go against reader expectations.

Let’s take as an example Prince Charming from Cinderella. He’s our MC. Cinderella is important, but she’s on the sidelines. We need a character who is on board with the idea of three balls that are being held expressly to find him a wife. We want readers to like him. We want to like him ourselves, so we craft a prince who has opinions, friends, challenges, whatever they are–maybe the kingdom is badly governed or he doesn’t get along with the prime minister. When we get to the balls, halfway through our book, he just isn’t cut out to care about them, much less notice Cinderella, no matter how beautiful she is, no matter how interesting and perfect for him she is.

We may have to do a lot of writing to make this work, not only revising him but also our plot. What can we add or subtract from him to make him open to the wife marketplace that the balls really are?

Naturally, we can make a list!

∙ Charming has a warm, loving relationship with his parents, which we have to build. The balls are important to them, so, against his inclinations, he takes them seriously.

∙ We make the ball especially hard for him. He has a stutter, a twitch, a bunion–something physical (another list). He doesn’t care about the ball, but he’s unwilling to fail at anything. We revise to show this quality in our story up to now. We show what happens to him when he fails.

∙ He’s a wonderful friend. Think Darcy’s friendship with Bingley in P&P. We build loyalty into him. Charming’s best friend is making a fool of herself at the ball. He gets involved to save her from years of regret, and Cinderella enters the picture.

∙ More that you can make up.

The strategy here is to look at our plot as well as the one character who’s driving us crazy. We may have to revise both for our story to work.

Often there’s a moment when the character first reveals what he’s like and starts behaving in the way that doesn’t work for our story (though we don’t recognize it at the time). When we find that moment, we can adjust him and move forward from there. Of course, as soon as we change him in that spot, there will be ripple effects. The thing that Charming said that led his friend to an action, he won’t say, so the friend is likely to do something else. And Charming himself will be dancing off in an unfamiliar direction. At that point we look at the new trajectory of our story and see what will have to change and what we can hold onto.

Sometimes what we can hold onto isn’t much. Starting with Ella Enchanted, there have been books that have forced major rewrites on me for one reason or another. I wrote two hundred pages of Ella and had to go back to page twenty and start again from there. In that case I veered down a very long plot cul-de-sac. In Fairest, I couldn’t get the POV right and rewrote it three or four times before I found my way. The Two Princesses of Bamarre was supposed to be “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” and I had to discover an entirely new story. I still don’t know what I was originally trying to do with Stolen Magic, which I agonized over here on the blog.

On the other hand, some books have seemed to want to be written and have almost written themselves, like the first five of the six “Princess Tales,” and The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre. Others have fallen in a mid range of difficulty.

Regarding other big-picture issues, if the plot is affected in a big way, the changes that we’ll have to make are likely to be big, too. I just finished Part One of my Trojan War fantasy. My MC in the first part is Cassandra, who, according to Greek mythology, is a priestess of the god Apollo, but I don’t know much about what it meant to be a priestess in ancient Greece, based only on short passages in two books on daily life during the period, so I sketched that part in very vaguely, and my writing buddy said that’s inadequate. Through another friend, I connected with an archaeologist who’s working in that region, and she recommended an almost three-hundred-page book on the subject, which I will tackle very soon.

Depending on its contents, I’ll face a dilemma. If reflecting actual history upends my plot, what should I do? I can design a fantasy priestesshood that conforms to my plot and let readers know that what they’re reading isn’t historically accurate, or I can do a lot of rewriting. I think it will depend on two criteria: what I decide will make a better story and what seems more interesting and fun to write (as in the have fun that I end each post with).

If the worldbuilding issue isn’t earthshaking, it will be more in the Lego category. We can search our document for whatever we have to redo, make the change and move on.

But voice and POV are also big-picture issues. They may not change our plot much, but they will change its presentation, the lens through which readers view events. For example, some plot points may rise in significance and others may sink. A significant rewrite will probably be called for.

Writing isn’t for lazy people. If we wanted cushy lives, we would have chosen to be astrophysicists.

Writing also (sigh) encourages humility. And learning. We learn to be better writers our whole lives. That’s a great thing.

Here are three prompts:

∙ I’m thinking of time-travel movies like Peggy Sue Got Married and Back to the Future, when an MC gets transported to a different time. The MC is the same; some aspects of her world and some of the people in it are also the same, but a great deal is different. For this prompt, write a scene that takes place in ordinary 2020 during the sweet-sixteen party of your MC, Doneta. Introduce an element of conflict–a disagreement with a parent, an argument with a friend, a disappointment from a romantic interest, or something else–you decide. The next morning, she wakes up in a different world, and it’s again the day of her sweet-sixteen party. This world may be forty years in the past or future or may be on a planet that circles a bright blue sun. Some characters will be the same, some different. The party tradition will be slightly different–you decide how. Write the party scene in this new world and revise the conflict in some way. If you like, keep writing.

∙ Take the Prince Charming who doesn’t care a pin about the ball. Don’t change him to make him care. Write the first ball and what follows. Introduce Cinderella and her stepfamily. Cinderella is still pretty and a decent person; the stepmother and stepsisters are still horrible, each in her own way. Your story doesn’t have to follow the fairy tale, but it can wind up there if you want it to. Keep writing, and keep Charming center stage.

∙ Choose one of your stories that you’re happy with and deliberately fool with it–but first save the original. Change the personality of your MC or a major character. Rewrite at least the first five pages. If you like what’s going on, continue. At the end, you may have two distinct stories or two variants that you can choose between.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. A best friend of mine and I, who both love your books, are starting a game where we email eachother writing prompts, than both write something based off of the prompt and see what we come up with. I love your writing propmts in this post a lot. Do you mind if I email your promts to my friend?

  2. Hello, Gail/Mrs. Levine,

    I would sincerely like to know what your step-by-step process for finding an agent is. I know that you probably get this question dozens of time (every day) but I hope you will consider adding your advice or a link to a webpage that already has advice. I’ve been down a lot of online wormholes, and I’m desperate for help from someone who’s had a piece of literature published through a traditional publishing company. How did you start the process, after you finished your first draft of your first novel?

    I’m not asking you to make a cover-letter for my book or anything like that–thanks for the helpful (and pretty) blog, I’ve been appreciating it for 3+ years. Thank you.

    • I’m not Gail and I’m not agented or published, but I have been in the query trenches for two years so I might be able to help! I don’t know how much research you’ve already done so this might be repetition, but the basic process goes:
      1. Have a finished, polished manuscript that’s your best work
      2. Get your submission materials in order (at the very basic a query + opening pages; a 1-3 pg synopsis can be helpful to have on hand since some agents will also ask for one, and a short 1-2 sentence pitch is also useful for contests
      3. Research and compile a list of agents that represent your genre + age category
      4. Send out a query and whatever materials the agent asks for (they’ll specify on their website; usually it’s query + first 10 pages) to the agent via email. Only query 1 agent per email (don’t cc multiple agents in one email, and address the agent by name), and generally don’t query two agents from the same agency at the same time. Follow the submission guidelines on their website for any other instructions. It’s generally a good idea to query multiple agents (from different agencies at once); I like to send my queries out in batches of 5-10.
      5. Wait for them to respond. Every agent’s response time differs (check their websites for details), but generally they’ll either respond with a rejection if the book isn’t for them, or a full manuscript request if they want to read more. If they ask for your full manuscript, send it and wait some more. If they respond with a rejection, don’t take it personally! Rejection sucks but it happens to everyone. Send out another query and keep persevering!
      6. If an agent reads your full manuscript and loves it, they’ll offer you representation, typically by phone call. Take that time to ask them questions, make sure you’re ready to commit to them, and once you agree, you’ll officially represented by them.

      Here’s some resources I found super helpful (urls altered to avoid activating the spam filter):
      A good basic reference on how to write a query letter:
      A great site where you can see real query letters critiqued by a literary agent who’s REALLY good: queryshark (dot) blogspot (dot) com
      Here’s the agent’s blog, where she answers questions about querying, publishing, and writing daily (I cannot recommend it enough; along with Gail’s blog, hers is the one I read every day): jetreidliterary (dot) blogspot (dot) com
      Another blog run by a group of authors about writing, querying, and publishing with some great beginner resources: publishingcrawl (dot) com

      Assorted tips:
      – make sure the book you’re querying is in the best shape that it can be
      – get some outside eyes on your query if you can; if you have critique partners, share your query with them. You can also post your query on some writer forums/groups and ask for feedback in the comments, or ask people if they want to swap queries to critique. Some agents also offer query critiques for a fee.
      – sites like manuscriptwishlist (dot) com and the twitter hashtag #MSWL are super useful when researching agents; agents post their wishlists there, so you might find someone who’s looking for something exactly like your book. If so, mention it in the query!
      – if you send out a few queries and aren’t getting requests, it can be helpful to reevaluate your query and first pages and/or seek out feedback from others
      – always act professionally
      – do your research before querying anyone; there are sadly some scam agents and publishers around. If an agent asks for money upfront, RUN
      – rejection is hard but inevitable at EVERY step in the publishing process. Do what you need to do to take care of yourself, but KEEP GOING. You only need person to say yes.

      Good luck!

      • Gail Carson Levine says:

        Thank you, Melissa Mead and Raina!

        Happily, I haven’t had to look for an agent in over twenty years, so my knowledge isn’t the most current. I just want to add a few thoughts:

        Most agents these days will offer a contract that spells out your relationship. When I got my agent, it was just a handshake, so I don’t know what such a contract looks like, but I bet you can find samples online.

        You should never pay an agent outright. The agent is paid out of a percentage of your advances and royalties.

        And I often recommend Harold Underdown’s COMPLETE IDIOT’S GUIDE TO CHILDREN’S PUBLISHING, which has a chapter on agents.

          • My local convention (Albacon) also allows people under 18, although if a contract came out of it I suppose a parent or guardian would have to sign. It could be a good learning experience, though. I know I’ve seen some very talented young people in the Costume Contest.

  3. Kit Kat Kitty says:

    This was such a great post! It was very informative. I love Ancient Greece, so it was fun to hear about it in this post, even a little bit. The prompts were very good too. I haven’t been writing very much lately, but the Prince Charming prompt is particularly interesting…
    Anyway, I hope anyone has a great day. 🙂

  4. Funny, that… I’m ‘repainting’ my book, and hoping to finish by the time I go to my first conference, in late March, on the off chance an agent there asks for a full. I’ve got about 6 out of ~60 chapters of the previous version rewritten into 4 chapters of the new draft…sigh. Better get writing again.

  5. Several of my WIP’s are fairy-tale retellings, but the changes I made for the retelling have made it almost impossible to use the original. Take my dragon Cinderella. There’s no fairy godmother, the balls are at a dragon boarding school, and I cannot for the life of me figure out the pumpkin carriage. So, my question is, how do you know whether you should abandon a fairy-tale or not, when it seems like you’ve written it out of the story?

    • future_famous_author says:

      I agree with Melissa. Why try and use things from the fairytale if you like where you’re going? I wrote a retelling of Little Red Riding Hood, but the only things from the original were the red cloak and the grandmother- there wasn’t even a big bad wolf, though there were wolves. I don’t think that you have to abandon it all- maybe don’t do a pumpkin carriage! Create some sort of fruit that the dragons like, and that can be what it is, or just don’t have a carriage. And who cares if there’s no fairy godmother, at least you have Cinderella!

      • Thanks for the encouragement! I suppose it’s just that I’ve always thought of it as a fairy-tale retelling, and I’m just a bit nervous about having to rethink such a fundamental aspect of a story. Originally, I thought it would use the fairy-tale at an Ella Enchanted/Cinder level, but it’s starting to look more like a Dragon Slippers level.

        • Gail Carson Levine says:

          I agree about not worrying. When you finish your first draft, you’ll see what you have. If there are only faint hints of the fairy tale, some readers will notice and feel clever, which will be fun for them. Others will miss the hints, and that’s okay, too.

    • Sometimes fairytale retellings just do what they want to do, regardless of what you intended. For instance, one of my works in on- and- off progress started out as a Sleeping Beauty retelling. Now, after many, many detours, it’s a time- travel fantasy set in turn of the century Ireland. It’s not what I planned, but that’s okay. Right now I’m working on a Cinderella story, but there’s no magic, the fairy godmother character is a man, and the Prince is the villain. Is it really Cinderella? I don’t know. But does that really matter? I think not.

  6. Hey y’all! I’m running into trouble with my fantasy-horror novel. I want my three MC’s to be where the action is happening so I can show how bad things are without having to tell the characters/readers. The problem is that they are contained in capital city of the kingdom for a good portion of the book. How do I organically get them involved in the action?

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      Looks good to me. People should click on one of the submissions options and then click on the guidelines. Thanks!

  7. To answer Melissa Mead’s question, gypsy uprisings are happening all around the kingdom. One MC, the Prince, is able to be in most of the action because he’s providing them weapons. My problem is with the two female MC’s, the duchess and her best friend (also a gypsy) since the safest thing for them to do would be to stay put in the capital city. They do go on a quest at some point, but I would like for them to be involved sooner, especially the duchess character. I apologize for my lack of detail earlier! : )

  8. Can I get some opinions? Lately my inner critic has been giving me a really hard time about one part of my books that I never expected to be bothered about – at least, I’ve never really thought about it before. But, my current book series is about three boys. For a lot of plot reasons, it only worked to have them all be the same gender, and one of them absolutely needed to be male, so, that’s what happened. There are lots of important supporting characters (it’s kind of a large cast) with plenty of variety, but the main three are boys. And, for some reason, it’s really bugging me! I don’t normally worry too much about being socially aware when I’m writing (I’m just here to entertain myself, after all); but I think I’ve heard so many times that it’s only a good story if it has a strong, capable female protagonist, that it’s causing me to question myself. My inner critic keeps telling me this is all wrong and I need to figure out a different plot where my main characters can be female, because it’s not a good book if they aren’t. Tell me, do you think it’s wrong, these days, to make an epic fantasy about a few boys, with the strong/confident/smart female characters in the background?

    • There is absolutely nothing wrong with having exclusively male protagonists. Write your story the way it needs to be written. In my opinion, there are enough books already with strong capable female MC’s, that your story doesn’t need to be one of them.

    • Anyone who says “It’s only a good story if…” is wrong. There is an exception to every single rule, including this one. Just because a lot of writers have strong female protagonists doesn’t mean everyone has to. Series with all-male protagonists are rarer than they used to be, but there are still some out there. The Attolia books by Megan Whalen Turner (high school and up) come to mind. Almost all of the characters there are male.

    • I agree with everyone else, and I wanted to add that actually, MG and YA fantasy have swung the other way–there are way more female main characters than male now, and boys have more trouble than girls at finding modern representatives to identify with.

    • Don’t even worry! It is perfectly okay to have only male protagonists, especially if it makes the story work better. And if someone calls you sexist for having male main characters, then they’re the one being sexist for thinking that only females make good main characters.
      I have worried about that kind of thing in my stories, but worrying if people will think you aren’t being “politically correct” or something just sucks the joy out of writing. Write whatever you want and have fun! 🙂

      (Btw, this is viola03. I’ve decided to start going by my real name that I publish my books under. I figured this is a pretty safe online environment.)

  9. Gail Carson Levine says:

    I agree with Erica. I think we strong/confident/smart female writers should write the stories that appeal to us. Otherwise, how strong/confident/smart are we?

  10. future_famous_author says:

    Any tips on how to deal with three characters who have the same name? I know it sounds funny, but there is a name that runs in the royal family in my story, and so I’m dealing with a grandfather, father, and son. The grandfather and father are dead now, but they are mentioned a lot since they were still alive in the first book of the series (this is the second book). The son does have a nickname, short for his real name, and they do have numbers, like King Henry IV, or something like that. I know that I could use the numbers, but I’m afraid that the readers would confuse them since I quite often forget the numbers myself. I used to just call them King and Prince, but then the Prince ended up King, too, so I have two dead Kings who have the same name and a toddler who also has that name.
    I hope that made sense!

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      Fun problem! They could be Long-Nose Peter, just Long-Nose for short; Sweet-Potato Pete (because I’m about to bake two); and Baby Peter, a name that can stick until he dies at 103.

      And of course you can make a list of ways to handle this.

      • future_famous_author says:

        That’s a really fun way to deal with this! Of course, I would have to change that once I start revising the first draft the first book, (yes, I started on the second book with only the first draft of the first done, and it actually works really well, since I can fix whatever I want in the first book to cooperate with what happens in the second book) but still really funny and interesting. I’ll have to try it.

    • I’ve got 2 characters with the same name in the book-on-sub, and I did something similar to what Gail said. One is sometimes called Jabin the Younger, and the other Jabin The Honorable.

      It also helps that they’re never “onstage” at the same time.

      • future_famous_author says:

        Yeah, that would be helpful, but the grandfather and father are together a lot, those they’re both dead before the son is born. So it’s not as confusing now, in the second book, except when the MC visits their graves or talks about what they did.

        • If it’s only confusing when the MC talks about them, why not have him call them “Father” and “Grandfather”, or his country’s version of it? It seems like that would solve the problem pretty well.

          • future_famous_author says:

            That would solve the problem- except that the “grandfather” is the MC’s adoptive father, and she never ends up close enough to him to call him “dad,” so she always calls him by his name, and the “father” is the MC’s adoptive brother, so she calls him by his first name, too. And the “son” is the MC’s adoptive son (confusing, I know) so she calls him by his name, too. I think that I’m going to give them nicknames.

    • I assume the two dead kings had a way to tell their names apart when they were still alive, unless everyone refered to them as title only.

      My son, husband, father-in-law, and grandfather-in-law are all named James (four generations). The first one went by Jim. The second goes by his middle name. The third went by Jimmy as a child and by Jim now. The fourth goes by Jamie–we’ll see if he wants to go by something else as he grows up. (I’m hoping that I someday get a grandson called James Quentin, meaning fifth, so we can call him Quinn).

      In a prequel story I’m still playing around with, I have Clayton VI. His son, Clayton VII, goes by Seven.

        • Song4myKing says:

          That’s hilarious! My mom and her sister each married a David. This has never been a problem for me, of course (Daddy vs Uncle David) but it gets interesting when my mom and aunt are talking. They’ll say things like “My David,” and “Your David.”

          Also, we deal with the same-name problem in our church fairly often. For instance, we have three Michaels in our church, and two of them have the same last name. One usually goes by Mike and the other by Michael, so that helps. But when there’s any confusion, or when it’s super important that there is no confusion, we bring their wives names in. Like “Mike and Sara” or “Sara’s Michael” or even just “Sara Michael” which might sound like a first and last name, but is really an adjective and noun!

          • That’s so fun! We have three Janes at our church, and they all help with music. My brother calls two of them Jane 1 and Jane 2.

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