Louie, Louie

In New York State, people over seventy (I’m seventy-two) or with health challenges that make them particularly vulnerable have been told to stay home. (Just saying to put you at ease, I have no health challenges.) Stay home period. Groceries are left outside our gate. I’m lucky to have my husband and my dog, to keep company with, and a big backyard to walk in. And to have you guys–to be able to read your questions, discussions, and the way we support each other. Please, everybody, be careful and stay well!

On December 4, 2019, in response to my plea for questions, Melissa Mead wrote, Questions….let’s see…

I write really slowly. Any tips on writing faster/spending less time chasing red herrings?

The WIP has 2 POV characters. How can I balance out their timelines?

I wrote back, About the first, I’m very slow too, and I chase red herrings, which sometimes turn out to be crucial. I’ll take a stab at this one from the standpoint of a fellow easily distracted writer.

I’ve added this to my list, but are they together, interacting, or are they in different places?

And Melissa Mead answered, In different places–and they’re essentially 2 versions of the same person. in different places, interacting with some of the same people, but at different times. They meet up once or twice in the course of the story, and at the end.

My brain hurts just trying to explain it.

Raina came in with these suggestions: For the writing faster, this method helped me tremendously, and I’ll let the original author explain it much better than I ever could: www.thisblogisaploy.blogspot.com/2011/06/how-i-went-from-writing-2000-words-day.html.

The part that particularly changed my way of thinking was Side 1: Knowledge, or Know What You’re Writing Before You Write It. I use her method for outlining scenes before writing them for nearly everything I write now, and now the actual writing goes so much smoother. Of course, my scene summaries tend to be looong and take me a while to write so I don’t know if I’m actually saving time, but it feels so much easier and that alone is worth it for me.

For timelines, I really like this NaNoWriMo blog post about plotting your story like a subway map: www.blog.nanowrimo.org/post/166302962291/nano-prep-outline-your-story-like-a-subway-map. I’m a visual person who loves using number lines to visualize plotting and pacing, so this was right up my alley. Your results may vary, but it’s worth a look, especially for complicated/multiple plot lines.

If you’re talking about in-story *time*, specifically, rather than narrative pacing, I found that a simple schedule helps, at least on a small scale. I planned out my MC’s day like an agenda (12 AM: arrival. 1-2 AM: getting settled in. 2:15 A.M.: visit another character) and it helped me keep track of timing and how long things should take. It also helps to remember that narrative pacing and in-story time can be very different; a 3,000-word scene that’s mostly dialogue can take place in less time than it actually takes to read, while a single paragraph of a character traveling can take place over hours or even days. It also helps me catch when I forget to make characters eat or sleep.

Thank you, Raina! I especially like the enthusiasm side and the techniques to ramp it up. Being eager to write a scene makes everything easier and more fun.

There’s this quote attributed to Oscar Wilde, although the wording varies. It goes something like, “I had a busy and productive day. In the morning, I took out a comma, and in the afternoon, I put it back in.”

He was talking about poetry, and poets are notoriously finicky and precious. Still, everyone’s pace is different, and we should take credit, as Oscar Wilde did, for our productivity (even if the word count is zero).

As I’ve said here, I’m slow. I don’t know if all pantsers are. But lately, I’ve had to face the fact that I allow the online world, especially emails, to contribute to my pokiness. I’ve started limiting email checking to half-hour intervals, and I’ve already noticed improved concentration.

But it isn’t only email. I google too much. As you may know, I’m writing about the Trojan War. Near the end of the war, thirteen Amazon women came to the aid of Troy. Thirteen is a small number, but the Amazons (who really existed) were fabulous warriors, and they cut a swath into the Greek army. I’ve read a book about them, The Amazons, Lives & Legends of Warrior Women Across the Ancient World by Adrienne Mayor. They were Scythians, an ancient people, who were technologically advanced for the time: among the first to domesticate the horse and to smelt iron. Most of all, for my purposes, their bows were far and away better than any others, smaller but more powerful than those of the Greeks. The Scythian bow was complicated, consisting of wood, animal horn, sinew, and animal glue. Making a single bow took a few years, so each one was precious. My MC is a young bowyer (bow-maker), so I need to understand the process.

I’ve spent hours online, reading articles, watching YouTube demos, and–in terms of frittering–learning many fascinating things I may never need. The whole process still isn’t clear to me, but I may have enough for the writing. I now know how to make glue from my dog’s collection of half-chewed rawhide!

So we limit our email checking, our Facebook looking, our tweeting (I don’t do that one), our Instagram gawking (guilty!). We set limits.

Pantser that I am, I now know that I need a fundamental, very basic, maybe just half a page, outline. And I have to know, more or less, the ending. With those two, I’m confident that I have a real story and not a meandering maze. And with them, I write (slightly) faster.

I write faster, too, as I get farther along and the choices narrow, and the excitement builds–I think this is the enthusiasm side. So, it will help us to keep our eyes on the prize, our basic plot and our ending.

A deadline can help, too. It does for NaNoWriMo writers. I have deadlines, but I generally push them so far out that a non-English speaking writer could probably learn the language from scratch and make my deadline. (Slight exaggeration.) Even if you don’t have a waiting editor, you can set a deadline.

However, we all go at our own pace and take our pleasure where we may. I like fiddling and rewriting as I go and making lists and seeing what I come up with. I enjoy framing and reframing a sentence sometimes and sometimes getting an elegant turn of phrase. These do slow me down, I guess, but they also are part of what I love. I won’t come anywhere close to the output of the late science fiction writer Isaac Asimov, who, in his seventy-two years, wrote or edited more than five hundred books–I’d have to live more than five hundred years!

In terms of the timeline for Melissa Mead’s two characters, a chart might help. Since they’re versions of the same character, lets call them Louie One and Louie Two. The chart might consist of a column for each Louie with a third column for dates and times. For some times, when the action is intense, we’ll need to include hours and possibly even minutes. For example, the left-hand column might show Saturday, 9:00 am. Next column: Louie One, dusting the bric-a-brac in his front parlor. Third column: Louie Two, spooning arsenic into his delicious lamb stew. Next line: 10:00 am. Louie One, not in story. Louie Two, ladling stew into mason jars. And so on. (I don’t know if they can be in separate places at the same moment–Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde couldn’t be.)

I think the chart can be used either during the writing or in revision–or both.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Jack and Jill live in the kingdom of Desertia, which has been in a drought for fifty years. Throughout their whole young lives, they’ve heard rumors of a well on a certain hill. A pail of water from that amazing well will inexhaustibly irrigate all the farms in the kingdom. There are conditions, though. Not a drop of water may be spilled, and the pail may be lowered into the well only once. In half an hour of real time, write any scene from Jack and Jill’s journey to the hill. Decide if you’d like to spend the half hour writing the tragic denouement.

∙ Jack lives in western Desertia, and Jill lives in the far east. The well is over the northern border in the kingdom of Floodovia. In an exchange of letters, they agree to meet at the bottom of the hill at sunrise on a certain morning. Each encounters obstacles on the way. Jump back and forth between them, and write their travels, keeping track of the time, so that they do arrive as arranged.

∙ Both Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are diarists, though their styles are quite different. Dr. Jekyll mulls over every word, and Mr. Hyde writes at a fever pitch, the heck with grammar, spelling, and handwriting. Write a diary for each of them.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. “Spooning arsenic into his delicious lamb stew…” This made me smile!

    I’m more of an illustrator than a writer but it was so interesting to read about how you construct your novels.

    Plus I’m super intrigued to read about the bowyers and the warrior women!

  2. Thank you! I did try keeping a chart, and it helps, although I keep pantsing my way off the chart and having to go back to it. I also left “Louie 2” in a pickle, and have to figure out how to get him out of it. Hmm…

    • Oh- Yes, they can be in separate places at once. That’s part of what makes it tricky, actually. Ex, I just had 2 characters travel from where “Louie 2” is to where “Louie 1 is, and I had to figure out how long that took and what could or couldn’t happen in each place in the meantime.

  3. Gail, I’m glad you + your husband are staying in. I am too, because of health reasons, even though my office is “essential.” I wish I could work from home, but I can’t, so I’m using my vacation time. THANK YOU to everybody who’s “social distancing” to keep other people safe.

    Does anybody else find that their writing kinda “freezes up” when they’re scared? It doesn’t help that the current scene takes place in the isolation ward of a hospital, either!

    Stay well, everyone!

  4. I read Ogre Enchanted recently, and I was wondering where the names and components for the different medicines came from. My WIP is narrated by a dragon who’s an apprentice healer, so I’m having to come up with the treatments she uses. The problem is, all the names I come up with are either totally unoriginal or patently ridiculous. (“stoneleaf”, “twistroot”, etc.) Any advice?

  5. How do you describe characters? I can see them in my mind, but I don’t know how to get the important details onto the page. Also, I tend to overuse certain phrases: she smiled, he looked up, I turned, etc. How can I describe physical movement and facial expressions more distinctly?
    Any help would be appreciated.

    • I don’t always, unless it matters to the story. Ex, the WIP has a major character named Julia. She’s important to the story, one of the people that Malak cares about the most, but aside from noting that she’s one of the few humans he knows, I don’t describe her much at all. Hopefully that allows the reader to identify with her in a world full of angels and demons.
      (Ok, you got me curious. On page 341 it says “it sounded like Honored Julia, the voice of this woman he’d never seen, with her freckled, square-jawed face and untidy hair threaded with gray.” And there’s an earlier mention of demon-bite scars on her arm. But I don’t know her eye color, for example.)

      So: The first thing is to decide which details matter in the context of the story. Ex, I mention Malak’s gold eyes because neither angels nor demons have eyes that color. What stands out about your character? What causes other people to treat them differently? What makes them special, unusual, honored, or shunned?

      A lot will depend on the POV, too. Whose eyes are we seeing this person through? (and ditto for the other senses.)

      • Gail Carson Levine says:

        There are phrases that are almost impossible to avoid, like ones you mention: smile, turn, look up. Getting fancy will just seem strange. The reader is likely to just note the action and move on, unperturbed. These are like “said,” which disappears.

      • Thank you! That’s a great way to think about it. I shouldn’t mention details just for the sake of mentioning them, they should be part of the story and the characters.

        • You’re welcome! I was thinking about your question and had another thought about choosing which details to mention. While I don’t remember if I thought this consciously at the time, here are some purposes those particular details about Julia serve: (I also just realized that this and the previous posts are spoilers. Malak’s not positive it’s really Julia at that point, and neither are we. If the book ever does come out, just forget about them, OK? 🙂 (Actually, knowing her name doesn’t matter THAT much.))

          “Square-jawed face”: They’re in a tense situation here, and this woman’s not backing down.
          “Freckles and untidy hair”- When Malak first met her, she was a teenager who didn’t always follow the rules.
          “threaded with gray”- Now she’s middle aged. She looks older, but Malak doesn’t. (and that’s why knowing her name isn’t too much of a spoiler, because the real question is “How much has she changed, and whose side is she on?”)

          I hope that’s helpful.

          • Writing Ballerina says:

            To add to this, the details you mention will also depend on the POV character, or the character who’s noticing them. Mrs. Levine mentions how she does this in… Writer to Writer, I think it is. From THE WISH, her character Wilma loves dogs, so, because it’s through Wilma’s POV, Mrs. Levine describes other characters by relating them to dogs. I can’t quote the exact scene because I sadly don’t own THE WISH, but I know that one girl is described like a Pomeranian, with a sharp laugh and nervous darting eyes (if I got that right).
            Other, less noticeable traits can be described like this. Someone who sings may notice people’s voices more. Someone who is an artist may notice the exact shade of someone’s shirt, or the shape of their jaw. This doesn’t necessarily relate to describing people, but I read a book where the POV character had perfect pitch, so they would notice that their gate squeaked in Bb or the dog’s yap was a shrill C. That also brings up the point that the POV character will affect how everything is described, not just the people.

    • I have a hard time with this too, especially since I have a hard time noticing/interpreting facial expressions. My only advice is that not everyone notices everything, so your character might not have to.

  6. I’m glad to hear you are doing well!

    Thank you for this post. I found the idea for the chart to keep track of multiple characters at the same time a particularly helpful idea, as I’m in the middle of a complicated manuscript and am trying to keep track of all the threads.

  7. Kit Kat Kitty says:

    I’ve started plotting a new book out, (Usually, I’m a pantser, but I’m trying this out) and I’ve run into a bit of a problem. I have two main characters, a boy and a girl. The boy is the actual main character, but the girl is a close second. The premise is that the boy is trying to get to the underworld and retrieve the soul of a man he killed on accident a year ago. (It’s a long story. There are gods in the story, and the boy happens to be the son of the death god, so he accidentally killed someone by touching them.) Anyway, he’s just starting out on his quest when the girl shoots him with an arrow that causes him to fall in love with her (that is also a long story, she didn’t want to, but she was worried her mother would love her less if she didn’t, and her mother is a goddess.) The point is, I realized that the girl has just as much growth to go through as the boy, and the whole “love arrow” sub-plot is really only a hindrance for the boy but it’s a big deal for her, so I was wondering if I should make her a POV character as well. I also think her story would be very interesting to write about. Any advice?

    • Go for it! Writing from someone’s viewpoint (especially 1st person) is a great character-building exercise, even if the scenes get cut later on. Unless you have a deadline, there’s no reason not to experiment. Sure, there will probably be a lot of garbage, but there may very well be some really good stuff, too.

      • Kit Kat Kitty says:

        My main concern really comes down to trusting myself to make the right call. If the story ends up being two POVs, it’ll go in a very different direction then if I only do one. I have a nasty habit of deciding to write from a character’s POV just because I think they’re interesting. I suppose it really comes down to what kind of story I want to tell, and I’m thinking that one POV is better, but I think I’ll try writing a few chapters from the girl’s POV too, as Katie W. suggested.
        All that said, I’m still not 100% what I’m gonna do or what’s gonna happen.

          • Kit Kat Kitty says:

            I guess it does, doesn’t it? I guess I’m just worried about what people will think. I’ve been warned before not to write two POV’s in a story just because I want to, but since I’m in the really early steps, I don’t think it’d do any harm.
            I guess I just need to remind myself that I write because it’s fun. 🙂

          • I think the most important thing is to make it clear when you’ve changed POV, and why. Ex, don’t do it in the middle of a scene, because the reader will get confused.

  8. Meggie Folchart says:

    Hello! I was wondering, does anyone else ever regret the world building choices they’ve made? Like in my WIP I have a magical sorcerers, but there is electricity and trains. Any tips on this? (I know this isn’t really relevant to the post, but I have been wondering)

    • First of all, feel free to change your mind if you need to. Second, there are several books that combine 1800’s technology and magic. Reading some of those might be helpful. For example, I just finished reading the “Cecelia and Kate” series by Patricia Wrede and Catherine Stevener (MG-HS, a bit of language). I thought they did well at incorporating both magic and science.

    • First, I absolutely love your name. Inkheart is a beautiful story–plus I’m in it! (I’m like teenage Elinor with a budget.)

      Second, I think your world building sounds fine. I blended magic and science somewhat– my MC is a budding ‘magiscientist’. They have a maglev train, only it’s magical levitation, not magnetic. It runs purely on magic, and is periodically refilled by wizards. Automobiles are outdated tech.
      …I do regret trying to make everything work out scientifically, though as the granddaughter of two scientists I suppose it was inevitable. I’m stuck trying to figure out dragon wings that can actually lift a 30-foot, 600-lb dragon without being unreasonably huge, and how exactly a person can change into a table (don’t. ask). I keep deciding to just say “IT’S MAGIC”, but then my brain goes “…And how does that magic work again?” and I’m back at square one.

      There are stories out there with magic and modern inventions working seamlessly… or sometimes not quite so seamlessly. Diana Wynne Jones does this really well in many of her books– The Chrestomanci Chronicles, Archer’s Goon, Dark Lord of Derkholm, and Howl’s Moving Castle, for example.

      Harry Potter has a magical train.
      Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl books have high-tech fairies with magic like healing, or the gift of tongues.
      Rick Riordan’s Greek/Roman/Egyptian/Norse mythology books (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Heroes of Olympus, Kane Chronicles, Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard, Trials of Apollo) take place in probably the 2010s, so it has both modern tech and magic! Cyclops on a cruise ship…C, c, C.

      • Gail Carson Levine says:

        Just wondering: Does the dragon have to weigh 600 pounds? I’m thinking of birds, whose bones are hollow. Dragons could have hollow bones, too. And maybe dragon flesh and dragon organs are full of bubbles. The dragon is enormous but not very heavy!

        • I tried making the weight/length estimates fairly realistic. 600 pounds is awfully light, if I’m remembering my estimates right (fingers crossed). (…maybe it was 5 or 4 hundred…?)
          And yeah, hollow bones (but I read that hollow bones are denser, so they don’t actually make birds lighter, but their lungs expand into their bones or something), high body temperature so there’s the hot-air-weighs-less-than-cold aspect. I’ll have to see how the bubble-filled-dragon math works out. Thanks!

          • Gail Carson Levine says:

            I did once read a book (for my first never-published effort) about birds and their flight. They evolved to be light, and one way is hollow bones, which I don’t think can be denser than mammal bones, for example. You might experiment on a chicken bone if you eat chicken. See how heavy it is and what’s in the middle. Compare it with a pork chop bone, if you eat pork. Sounds like you’re having fun, though.

  9. Pleasure Writer says:

    What do you do when you haven’t written in…say, a week or two, and are continuously blaming it on writer’s block, but deep down you know you’re just being lazy about it. Then you go to write and have absolutely no inspiration. I have had this problem often. Any suggestions on how to overcome an uninspired mind??

    • Change up your format. If I leave my desktop, take a pen and notebook, and brainstorm somewhere else, I get a ton of ideas. Back when I had a laptop as well, changing rooms would help, especially if I went outside and sat on the porch. Actually, my best time to get inspiration… is when I start to leave my desk.

    • Song4myKing says:

      Commit to writing every day. I often feel like the longer I go without writing, the harder it is to get back into it. I’ve lost my train of thought and my momentum. But when I decide I’m going to write every day, even just a little, it’s easier to get going and to keep going.

    • future_famous_author says:

      -Try scrolling through Pinterest, and looking at drawings, pictures, or writing prompts. All three help me.
      -Look through an old journal or document (if you tend to write on a computer) and read it.
      -Read!!! Search for pieces of a book that would make a good story, and create your own plot using ideas from another book.
      -Talk to people. I write down things that I hear people say sometimes, just because it’s funny to use those things in a story, since a lot of them you may never have come up with one your own. I always have funny statements to push into my stories and books.
      -Ask someone. I have a really good friend who also writes, and we always help each other come up with ideas and work through the tricky parts. I don’t think I ever would have finished a first draft, at least not so soon (it only took me 100 days) if it hadn’t been for her and my other friend who is an avid reader. They’ve both been so helpful, and I even based two characters off of them, and those two characters pretty much make the book.

      Hope this helps!

    • If you want to continue working on a story but are bored with it, try making a decision tree. (I’m sure there’s a better name for them, but I can’t think of one right now.) When I made one, I started out with the last major event in my story and thought of two options for what could happen next. Both of these events could have several outcomes. When this process got unwieldy, I picked my favorite chain and started over at the end of it. This was a bit more helpful than a list, because I could plan further out. Maybe you don’t write this way, bur I thought I would share my tip just in case.

  10. I agree with the others! Feel free to mix up elements from different eras, and don’t be afraid to change things. You are not slave to previous decisions if you feel others will work better. One of my worlds I’m working on developing seems to me like it’ll work better if it’s based mostly on medieval times, but in order for an important part of the plot to work I need their medical knowledge to be much more advanced than it was back then. So I’m having mostly medieval technology but healthcare and medical knowledge a little more like ours.

  11. What would be a good way to end the sentence “He’s so paranoid he locks up his keys, and so stubborn…”? (The character referred to is four feet tall, blue, and has wings, if it matters.)

    • Song4myKing says:

      “So stubborn that he’s still waiting for…” Or, “so stubborn that somebody is still waiting for him to…”
      “So stubborn he won’t wear a jacket until his brother does.” (True life example.)
      “So stubborn he still claims that the moon is made of cheese, because he said it once as a five year old.”

      Fun question!

  12. Kit Kat Kitty says:

    I’ve been thinking a lot lately about romance vs. friendship in books and which one I prefer to read/write, and I was wondering what everyone here thought.
    When you’re reading, do you prefer romance or a good friendship? And is it different when you’re writing?
    I know it’s random, but I was just wondering, and it kinda pertains to my current WIP, where I decided to keep the main relationship a good friendship and not a romance.
    I prefer to write a friendship, but I love to read romance.

    • Friendship all the way! After a while, I get really tired of every single story I read being a romance, so I like it when authors change it up.

    • future_famous_author says:

      I prefer to read about friendships, but to write about romance. Now, if I am reading a story about a boy and a girl’s friendship, then I am constantly hoping for love, but I don’t want the whole book to be their love story. I love to write romance, though, even though it is never the main part of the story, but usually a side detail or plot.

    • All of the above 🙂
      No, seriously, if a romance doesn’t include friendship between the couple as well as the romantic stuff, it’s not as satisfying. And I’m not as fond of books where the story and characters completely ignore their friends in order to focus entirely on the romantic relationships. I mean, that’s probably realistic, in that the characters in love are less focused on other people, but those other friends and relationships don’t just go away.

      • future_famous_author says:

        That’s actually a really good point, and it makes a whole lot of sense. Thanks for putting a new light on the topic!

  13. Kit Kat Kitty:

    Interesting question! When I’m reading, I guess I would prefer a good romance, partly because it’s so easy to get romance wrong that when it’s bad you really feel it, yet I don’t really hear anyone complain of a badly written friendship. A character’s best friend might be useless in the story or their friendship might not be very well developed but it feels less gratuitous. I still love friendship in stories. Some of my favorite friendship stories include The Penderwicks and the Betsy-Tacy series. Harry Potter has some of the best friendships I’ve ever read, but personally, I’ve never cared for the romance in the series.
    As far as writing, I think I’ve had romance in at least half the stuff I’ve ever written! In general, I’m a hopeless romantic. I’ve written a lot about siblings, especially large families, but not really a lot about friendships. In my fairy story, I have a friendship between the MC and his best friend, also male, and it’s a little harder for me to write since I’m not male.

    • future_famous_author says:

      Ok, I just have to say it: The Penderwicks is a really good series! And talk about friendship, I mean come on! So much of that! There’s a little love thrown in, too, though it doesn’t always end well for Rosalind. 🙂

      • Yes! At least it turned out well for Rosalind in the end. Now, on the other hand, it didn’t end so well for Skye. I wish Jeanne hadn’t gone quite so Little Women.
        I love both romance and friendship and wouldn’t say I have a preference.

        • future_famous_author says:

          I say that I prefer friendship in stories, but maybe that is only because I’ve never found a good romance book that I truly enjoyed, or that wasn’t too mushy and gross. I also read mostly middle-grade books, and, I maybe am mistaken, but I feel like most of those aren’t romances.

    • I love The Penderwicks as well. I was actually so hooked that I read a whole Penderwicks book for 6 hours straight one day and then went straight to the library for the next one that evening (not kidding)! Although, I also did that with Mrs. Levine’s book, Ella Enchanted… and Fairest…. and The Fairy’s Return… and a lot of others. I’m a big reader 😆.

      P.S (Speaking about the blog post)
      I also write pretty slowly. If I’m lucky, I’ll write half of an 8 page chapter in one day but usually a page or two. This was a great help! Thank you, Mrs. Levine!

      • future_famous_author says:

        I don’t have much time to write usually, what with hanging out with friends and schoolwork, so I usually get about 2 or 3 pages if you’re going Google Docs or Pages or something like that, Arial with 12 point font. With 250 word pages, it’s more like 4 or 5. One day, though, I wrote 12 250 word pages, which is a whole lot for me. The only first draft that I’ve ever finished was 238 250 word pages, and it was written in 100 days, which is a little over 3 250 word pages every day, which is a little over 1 Google Docs page.

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