Santa on the Dark Side

On December 4, 2019, Raina wrote her third question in response to my plea for questions (Thank you, Raina!): What do you do when your story turns “deeper” than you originally intended, and a whole bunch of complicated (not bad or problematic, just…complicated) themes and messages crop up, and the story you find yourself writing is no longer the story you set out to tell? I’m really bad at explaining this one, it’s more like a gut feeling. To use some examples from my work, what was supposed to be a fun, lighthearted adventure romp about Santa turned into a story about revenge, power, grey morality, and social media mob mentality. In other words, thematically it basically went from Percy Jackson to Game of Thrones.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I don’t like dark, deep, serious, or morally complex books, or that I think that MG readers shouldn’t read these books. I love Game of Thrones and similar works *because* of the complicated characters and grey morality, and I think there should absolutely be books like that for MG readers. It’s not really a matter of a serious tone or “dark” content, either. (I asked a similar question a while back but I don’t think I phrased it well.) It’s more like, as I write, the story is starting to ask difficult questions that I don’t know how to answer and am not sure I want to ask.

And, of course, part two of the question is how do you know if this is actually an issue, and not just in your head? I have a tendency to overthink/over-read into things (like the old joke where the English teacher goes on a long analysis about what blue curtains symbolize, while the writer just liked the color blue) and maybe I’m seeing things between the lines that normal readers would never notice.

And as a note, I know that some stories are *meant* to be serious, complicated works that force the reader to think deeply about the world and its issues. I like to read those and I sometimes write those, but my problem is when a book that *isn’t* supposed to be like that starts turning into that and I can’t control it. Sometimes I just want a fun, lighthearted adventure romp to stay a fun, lighthearted adventure romp.

Melissa Mead wrote back, I can sympathize. Real-life politics are trying to creep into the WIP, and I don’t want ’em there. Themes, sure. Moral issues, sure. But not something I just saw on the news, only with serpent-demons. (Fortunately for the WIP, life’s simpler for serpent-demons. If somebody invades their territory, the demons just eat ’em.)

Raina responded, Yes! That is my problem exactly. I can deal with morally complex big-picture themes relatively easier than I can with smaller, specific ideas that may or may not be reminiscent of real-world issues (though neither are easy to deal with). Themes like power, morality, corruption, etc., have been around for millennia, both in fiction and in history, because humans are flawed, and I feel like I have comparatively more leeway to explore them from all angles because of that. They’re so common, and occur in so many different forms, that you can’t really pinpoint any specific event or issue that those themes correspond with.

But what I’m really afraid of is writing something and have a reader think “this sounds like an analogy for a specific thing that’s going on in the real world, and this is what I think the author is trying to say about that real-world thing” when I wasn’t trying to say anything at all. I admire authors who use their medium to address real-world problems, and I think it can be done well, but sometimes I just want a story to be a story and I’m afraid people will read between the lines and find messages that I never meant to leave.

I feel your pain! Since my Princess Tales book, Sonora and the Long Sleep, came out I’ve heard from readers a few times about–breast-feeding! If you’ve read the book and remember, Sonora is ten times smarter than any other human being. She can talk almost instantly (though with a lisp, because she doesn’t have teeth yet), and she refuses to be breast-fed, calling it cannibalism.

Readers have deduced that I, Sonora’s creator, oppose breast-feeding. Not so! But I imagined Sonora as, intellectually, a twelve-year-old in a baby’s body. At twelve, there is no way I would have breast-fed!

If I’d anticipated this response, would I have changed what I wrote or cut it entirely? I can’t say. This was many years ago. But I continue to like it, because it’s true to my character, and it’s funny.

We can’t anticipate what readers will think when they read our stories. It’s wonderful when they let us know, because they felt strongly enough about our words to reach out to us. (We can answer, or not.)

Going back to the first part of Raina’s question, about serious and problematic themes cropping up unexpectedly, I have a couple of thoughts.

This is just a possibility: These grave topics may be pushing you, wanting to be written about. If we tamp them down, our story may punish us in the ways that recalcitrant stories know all too well how to do.

Raina, I remember that you outline. You might spend a few hours figuring out where the story would go if you let it be serious. If you like what happens, you can go that way.

If you don’t, then you can list ways to lighten things up.

If you’re a pantser like me, you may have to write a lot of pages to find out.

Or you can write both stories. A writer I loved (I haven’t read him in years), the late Donald Westlake (high school and up), wrote comic crime novels under his own name and darker crime novels under the name Richard Stark. In the comic ones, the MC is always the bumbling crook, Dortmunder, and in the serious ones, the criminal MC (but not the villain) is Parker. In one of the funny books, Dortmunder and his gang of idiots have a book by Richard Stark (which is an actual Richard Stark book that Westlake wrote). They decide to commit Stark’s crime exactly, because it turns out well for him. What could go wrong? It’s such a funny premise! Westlake got two books out of one. You can, too.

If we decide we don’t want to be serious, how can we dial it back?

∙ Our characters. This is probably the most important one. Let’s make Santa our MC. We can write two versions of his stream of consciousness:

The dark one: The letters came from this house. Not addressed to the elves or the old elf, who would be me, but to the King of Cold, the bringer of winter, the troll at the top of the world. Been on my mind all year. Don’t they realize I need to be happy? Don’t they know my happiness affects everyone else’s?

The light-hearted one: The letters came from this house. Sent me straight to the mirror to see the troll at the top of the world. I didn’t get what she meant until I shone a flashlight under my chin and forced a snarl. Ho, ho, ho! That was funny. I want to thank this girl. She got me through a dull summer.

If we’re getting too serious, we can examine what our characters are thinking, saying, doing, and make different choices for them. Also, the effects of events on our MC will influence the mood. An MC who keeps trying, who isn’t defeated when events go against her, will keep our story bobbing up no matter what.

Secondary characters can help, too. If Santa shows the troubling letters to his chief helper, that character will also set the tone. If she’s horrified or outraged, matters may escalate. If she, for instance, says, “You want to hear from your public, boss. I wish somebody would once, just once, write to me.” she’ll calm the waters.

∙ The stakes. The stakes don’t have to be high for a story to be engrossing. What’s needed most is likable characters who care deeply about an issue, which could be either winning the snowman-making competition or surviving the global snow-pocalypse caused by nuclear winter. If our story is more serious than we want it to be, we can lower the stakes.

∙ Setting. Might be hard to make The Shining quite so scary if it took place in a Holiday Inn or a private house, say a raised ranch.

Here are three prompts:

∙ I’m never sure how to take the nursery rhyme, “Jack and Jill,” which seems tragic. Turn the rhyme into two stories, one sad and one happy.

∙ Take “Jack and Jill” again. Your MC, Abby, is babysitting for little Bobby, who heard the rhyme at school and was terrified. At home, he brings it up and weeps uncontrollably. Write a very serious story in which Abby, who means well, makes everything worse, with lasting consequences for her, Bobby, his family, and the town of Hillsford.

∙ Santa receives the first name-calling letter in July and begins a correspondence with the writer. Write a few letters back and forth and then have the two meet. Let the story decide for you whether it’s lighthearted or dark.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. Kit Kat Kitty says:

    Does anyone have any advice on how to write about things you don’t know? I know as writers we’re always told to write what we know, but sometimes I wonder. If I were to try to write a story about two people falling in love, could I do it? I’ve never fallen in love, so does that mean I can’t write about that? (I’ve liked people a lot before, and I’ve always been loved by my friends and family and seen couples in love, so would that count?) If I haven’t experienced something (or at least something very close to it) can I still write about it? Should I? Or is it about relating things we have experienced to things we have experienced?
    I don’t worry so much about faeries or dragons or vampires, because those things aren’t real. But I do worry about emotions or experiences. Can I write about a character who’s going through trauma I’ve never had to deal with without getting it wrong or offending someone?
    I know this is long, I’m just worried because that seems to be a mental block for me whenever I have an idea. I always tell myself I haven’t experienced it (or something very close) I can’t write about it.

    • Kit Kat Kitty says:

      Sorry, when I said “or is it about relating things we have experienced to things we have experienced.” I meant is it about relating things we haven’t experienced to things we have. My mistake.

    • future_famous_author says:

      Speaking of love, I wrote a whole book about love and I’ve never been in love! The love was hardly a subplot, either, it was a huge part of the plot! And if all we did was write about things that we had experienced, don’t you think that our stories and books and poems and movies would all start to get boring? All you have to do is try and picture yourself in that character’s shoes, whether those shoes walk through hard times or good times, and whether or not those shoes would actually fit you. It can be hard sometimes for us writers to make things up- not just a character, but emotions and feelings. It definitely takes practice to conjure up emotions that you’ve never felt and somehow project them onto a page, but it almost has to happen. Female authors oftentimes write about male characters, and thoughts and feelings that they have that the female author has probably never had herself, and vice versa. And in a classic, Little Women, which has been made into tons and tons of movies, the main character falls in love and gets married, whereas the author, whom the character was based off of, never got married herself. And I’m sure that Gail has written emotions that she never actually experienced herself!

    • Humans are amazing. Our emotions don’t know the difference between real and imaginary–that’s why stories exist. Have you read books or seen movies where you felt the connection between two characters? Then, to your brain, you have experienced it.
      If it’s a specific trauma that worries you, asking someone you trust who has gone through it is always a good mood. If meeting in person doesn’t work, try social media, or even reading a memoir or article they’ve written.

    • Yes, I have the same problem. I’ve never fallen in love and dislike reading romance novels, (although it’s just about inevitable) but I keep putting myself in situations where I have to write romance. Also, my current WIP is set in the mountains, but the only mountains I’ve ever seen are the Smokies/Appalachian/Blue Ridge/ whatever you want to call it. Any advice? (How far away can you see them from, how the environment changes as you go up, etc.)

      • future_famous_author says:

        I know that the internet tends not to give such specific information, but I’m sure there are articles that may help, and maybe books that would help you with that kind of thing. I’m not really sure, though, since I haven’t been to the mountains many times.

      • What kind of mountains? My local ones are the green, softly rounded Adirondacks, which IIRC are part of the Appalachian Chain, but I’ve been to the Rockies. You’re driving west across miles of flat plain when -boom-, there they are, no build up, just spikes of mountains with a tee line on top like a bald spot.

      • Kit Kat Kitty says:

        I live near a part of the Rocky Mountains. I could drive to the mountains in only a few minutes. I live in a valley, and the view is stunning. When I walk outside, I think of how lucky I am. There are a few things to remember about mountains:
        1. They’re massive, and singular mountains aren’t a thing. Mountains are parts of chains (I know this may seem obvious but I have heard about people who don’t know this stuff.)
        2. No two mountains look the same. If you really wanna go into detail in your story, it’s important to remember that mountains can be different sizes and shapes. Where I live, one part of the mountain kinda looks like the face of an Egyptian Pharaoh was carved into the side (at least, I thought so when I was younger) The other mountains have been compared to the Alps in appearance.
        3. There color. From a distance, the mountains near me have often looked blue. In the fall, there the color of the leaves. Also, for the majority of the year, the tops are covered in snow. I’ve heard that in a city near me, the early settlers could tell how much water they’d have by how much snow there was on a certain part of the mountains.
        4. There’s a small canyon near where I live. I’ve been hiking. I’ve never been very high, so I’ve never felt a change in elevation. As soon as you get into the canyon, everything is rockier and there’s a lot more streams/rivers. This might just be because there aren’t any houses or office buildings in the mountains though. Trees can grow sideways on steep slopes, and there have been times where the slopes have been covered only by rocks. (I was terrified there’d be a rockslide, but my family and I were fine.)
        5. Mountains are visible from very far away. Even from four miles away, I can still see a lot of details. Trees can be seen (not in detail, but they’re like dots you can tell are trees)
        I don’t know if that’s what you wanted, but I hope it helps.

      • Suggestion: read or re-read books set in mountains like the ones you want to write about. It can help you get the feel for your setting.

        Some recommendations:
        Heidi, by Johanna Spyri – The classic; set in the Swiss Alps
        Bloomability, by Sharon Creech – A modern day American girl in Switzerland.
        Banner in the Sky, by James Ramsey Ullman – a boy climbs a daunting mountain in the Alps.
        Treasures of the Snow, by Patricia M. St. John – A family in the Alps; includes great setting details, like the houses up and down the mountain side, the village in the valley, a trip to pasture the herds higher in the mountain for the summer, and crossing a mountain pass in a blizzard.
        Highland Rebel, by Sally Watson – Set in the Scottish Highlands, in the 1700s.
        All on a Mountain Day, by Aileen Fisher – Rocky mountain animals interacting (i.e. chasing and outwitting each other in real life ways, not talking animals).
        Miracles on Maple Hill, by Virginia Sorensen – Appalachian mountains; includes a lot of plant and animal details throughout a year, from one maple season to the next

        And of course there are many others! Most of these would be middle grades level (but written as all children’s books should be, to still be thoroughly enjoyable by adults). Banner in the sky might be classified as high school.

  2. Hi. I read your two books on writing and decided to check out your blog. I really love your work, especially Ella. I have a question that is very relevant in the novel I’m trying to write right now.
    How do you find ways to worldbuild without infodumping?

    • What I’ve done in my poor, neglected WIP is to get the plot stated quickly, and then slow down a little. For example, once I got my MC suitably injured, I then described the evening he spent in the hospital. What actually happened wasn’t important to the plot, bur it gave me the opportunity to explain better what was going on.

    • future_famous_author says:

      Also, if a character has to explain your world to another character, a character who has just been introduced to the country/realm/dimension/planet then you have a super easy excuse to easily plant new information into the story about the world that it is set in.

    • I think two aspects of worldbuilding is what to share, and when to share it. For the first, I like to think about a concept called Chekhov’s gun: basically, the idea is that if you introduce an element in the story, it should be used later on. The original concept applies to plot devices and props, but I think it’s a good way to think about worldbuilding. Beyond basic details about the world, if you introduce some information about the world, it should be relevant to and have some impact (even if not directly) on the story later on. In other words, the information should be used–whether to justify a character’s actions/personality, to have an effect on the plot, or just to explain why something happens the way it does–eventually.

      For the second, it helps to introduce information slowly, as it gradually becomes relevant/noticeable to the characters. I play Dungeons and Dragons (basically a group-based storytelling game with dice), and our dungeon master (the person in charge of the game and the overarching story) does a LOT of worldbuilding, but doesn’t tell us about it until it becomes relevant for our characters or we interact with the world. When we enter a city, he gives us some basic information (the size, the climate, the general atmosphere, stuff you would notice by looking at a postcard) but doesn’t tell us all the details in one go, like the precise demographic makeup, every historical event, the internal power structure, where all the best taverns are, etc. To find that information, we have to walk around the city and talk to people and investigate, and we get bits of info here and there. And if we choose not to go down a particular path, he doesn’t tell us about it, even if he already created an intricate plot but we completely ignored the inciting incident. (Which has happened a couple times!) The beginning of the Hunger Games is a great example; we’re gradually introduced to more details about the world as Katniss draws connections between what her world is like and what she’s currently doing/thinking about.

      Another tip is to think about how people process “worldbuilding” information in the real world, and how we think about the world around us. For example, our government system: most of us know that America is a democracy, and we choose our president by voting every four years (the political system), we know who the current president is (current state of things), and we know this all came about after the thirteen colonies declared independence from Britain (history). If we’re interested in politics or history, we may also know how the electoral college and the two-party system works, which party is in power in each of the three branches, or that the Constitution that set up the American governmental system was ratified on June 21, 1788. I would guess that considerably less people would be able to explain in detail our first-past-the-post electoral system led to the development of exactly two major political parties, name each congress member and their platform, or list the names of everyone who signed the Constitution. If you want more examples, check out same academic nonfiction books about history; they go SUPER in-depth about specific topics and analyzes their impact on everything we know. All of these things shape the world we live in, but different people know it in different levels of detail. And even if you DO know these things, you’re not always thinking about them. Most often, the things at the top of people’s minds are the things that are most noticeable or directly affect them. So while you build a complex world, keep in mind that your characters might not know every single detail or realize how that affects them as a person.

  3. Thanks for responding to my question, Gail! It really gave me a lot to think about, especially the part about how the difficult topics might be pushing me to write about them. I think that’s a very real possibility for me, but in that case, I’m running into another question/problem: how do you know/make sure you’re writing about these difficult problems “correctly”? How do you know if you have the skills/knowledge/experience/”right” to write about those problems? And how do you find the courage to write about difficult topics?

    Without going into too many details, there have definitely been books recently that tried to tackle difficult topics that, due to the way they were written/presented were…not well received by readers, to say the least. And while opinions about those specific books may vary, as well as the general atmosphere of the publishing/book world currently, I think it’s pretty evident that sometimes writing something can have serious and far-reaching consequences, and good intentions aren’t enough of an excuse. I think there’s a lot of sides to this issue, and I understand why different people have different stances. Maybe what’s happening is good, maybe it’s not, but that’s an ethical discussion for another time.

    But in this atmosphere, how do you know whether you should be writing what you’re writing? And how do you get over the fear of “getting it wrong”? And how can you make sure (and get over the fear of) that what you write isn’t misinterpreted by others to mean something you never intended? I know sensitivity readers are becoming more common these days, but even that isn’t failproof, and some issues aren’t directly tied to matters of identity that can be linked to a specific sensitivity reader. I guess what I’m asking is, how do you get out of your comfort zone when you feel like you don’t have a safe place you can fail?

    This is a really thorny topic, I know (sorry for the string of downer questions!) but it’s something I’ve been struggling with for a long time.

    • I know what you mean. I have an unfinished story that’s sat for decades because I’m not sure I’m doing it justice. It’s about a brilliant student wizard who’s become mentally ill. He’s got the power to reshape reality-but he’s not perceiving reality the way most people are, so he kills somebody thinking he’s helping them, and his magic is sex-linked, so if he could be made to use his power to change his sex, he’d stop hallucinating…I decided it was WAY too much for me to take on.

      I’m afraid that’s more sympathy than heap, but yeah, I get it.

    • Yes, my current WIP has a similar problem. My dragon MC faces severe prejudice and was abused as a child, but becomes a lovely dragon in spite of it and ends up a queen. And, no matter how I try to squish it, there’s a part of me that’s worried that people will read the story and think I’m writing it from some kind of personal experience, which I am totally not. But since I, possibly the most oblivious reader in the history of books, can see it, I’m worried others will too, even though it was never my intention. Like I said, 99% of me knows I’m probably being paranoid, but the 1% keeps worrying.

      • Some people probably will think that. I guess the question is: How much would it bother you? Would a random person’s incorrect thoughts hurt anybody? There’s a really lovely essay in Jane Yolen’s book Once Upon A Time (she said) about how once an author puts a story out into the world it becomes each reader’s story, and they may find things in it that the author never intended. Sometimes in wonderful ways, too.

        • I wouldn’t care what they thought about it so much as what they said about it. I’m perfectly happy to let everyone find their own meaning in the story, but I’m just uncomfortable with that becoming part of the publicity, if you will. I don’t mind what people think, but I’m worried about what they might say/write.

          • future_famous_author says:

            I think that it is safe to say that if someone enjoys what you write, they won’t care what someone else said. And if they don’t like it, and they agree with something someone else writes, then that’s only their thoughts, and who cares? If I saw a bad review of my favorite book on Amazon, then I would just forget about it! If I love that book, I won’t let other people’s words stop me from liking it! Now, as for something that someone might say about your writing, it’s always okay to put something right, if there is an incorrect assumption made, but if someone finds a meaning that you wouldn’t want your story to have, that’s okay. Strange, probably, since most people don’t write about things that they don’t believe in, and if they do, it’s the villain doing the thing, but it’s not going to change what other people think about your writing. I might just be ranting, but what I’m saying is that their words can’t hurt you.

  4. I’m writing an experimental book where I play with things like gender, age, and the five senses. I’m working on each of these one at a time. I’m almost finished with the gender and age part but, I’m coming up on senses and I’m trying to figure out a balance between writing too many details and not enough. For example, I think too many details would sound like, “I walked into the dark room. I heard the creaking of the floor boards as a large, grey rat ran across the dark oak floor. The room smelled dusty and moldy with a hint of smoke. It was so dusty that I could taste the dirt on my tongue. I placed my hand on a cold, rough table and a floor board began to break beneath me” or is that just enough details? Would it be better to briefly write what I’m trying to say like, “I walked in to the dark room. A rat ran across the floor. Everything smelled dusty. I put my hand on a rough table and the floor gave out below me.” Or not?
    I guess what I’m trying to ask is, how can you find to balance between too many details and not enough? And, does the book get boring after a lot of details or does it get more interesting?

    • future_famous_author says:

      I haven’t read a book that went in too much detail in a while… but the book I am reading right now does it in a very interesting way. The author doesn’t usually explain how things look, except characters, but even then only sometimes, but when the character is coming across a new place (castle, house, field, woods, etc.) she seems to explain every detail! While this is a time when details are necessary for the reader to fully understand the story, I don’t think that she should go so in detail with the setting, and then completely forget about other things.
      Also, I think that your first example may have been a little too much, but I also think that it could be condensed into less. Maybe like this: “I walked into the dark, dusty room, smelling of mold and smoke. There was so much dust that it coated my tongue, and the table that I placed my hand upon as a rat ran across the squeaky floorboards. As the squeaking of the rat disappeared, a floorboard began to break beneath me.” I’m sure I’m not any better at description as you are, and there is really no right way, but that’s just how I feel like it should go. Less words, almost the same amount of description. Also, if you don’t pile all the description on the reader at once, adding details as a character explores a place, they may be more likely to grasp what you are saying, and to enjoy it.

    • I think the important part is to pick the details that are important to your character. Are they scared of rats? Allergic to dust, mold, or smoke? Is there something special about the table?

      • future_famous_author says:

        And not just what is important to your character, but what will be important to the plot. Will the rats spread a disease? Will the darkness mean they can’t see their enemy? Does the smoke show that there was a fire, one that killed an important character? Does the dust show that this place has not been occupied in a long time, meaning that whoever they thought might be there is long gone?

    • Make sure that all of the details you include are reasonably observable in the situation. For instance, in your first example, you mentioned that the floor was made of oak. Could your character really tell what wood the floorboards were made of in a dark room, or did she already know? Questions like that help me make sure that descriptive details don’t go overboard.

      • future_famous_author says:

        Oh, I’ve never thought about it that way! That’s interesting!
        Also, if your character did mention that it was oak, maybe it’s because she has a past with wood, because a relative taught her what different kinds of wood looked like. Thinking about what a certain character might say about a certain place might help.

        • That’s true! The example I gave wasn’t from my book but now it’s got me thinking about how details are shaper from the MC’s P.O.V if they had a past with something they noticed.

          • future_famous_author says:

            And now our conversation about description has strayed to how you can build a more in-depth character! Using the things that your MC points out (or even side characters, through their dialogue or emotions) can show who they are, and help the reader get to know them more.

          • I’m just throwing in a resource here. I enjoyed “Word Painting: A Guide To Writing More Descriptively” by Rebecca McClanahan. It’s a whole book filled with tips for describing things, and the language she uses, both examples and narration, show that she knows what she’s talking about.

          • Gail Carson Levine says:

            These are great, and I don’t know how much I have to add, but the discussion is now on my list.

      • We read the first chapter and did the exercise today. I offered to shorten the time from twenty minutes, because ages range from 11 to 7, but they stayed focused the whole time. The 7-year-old wrote two sentences about a pokemon, and even the toddler spent the whole time drawing unicorns, so it went pretty well. We’ll see what happens with chapter 2 tomorrow.

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