Slicing Life

I posted this as a comment a few days ago, about a poetry-writing contest for high-school-age people: Here’s the link to Narrative High High School Writing Contest: You’ll read there about the rules and awards. I wrote to the contest to see if home-schooled kids can participate, and the answer is yes. The contest folks wrote back with these criteria for home-schoolers:
1. Be within our age bracket stipulation (grades 9-12 in the U.S. or internationally)
2. List as their school the name of the accredited home-schooling curriculum they follow
3. Have a “teacher” representative—whether that’s a parent or other tutor

Please say if you enter, and definitely if you win.
Good luck!

On December 17, 2020, Lysander Grey wrote, Does anyone have advice on writing “slice of life” stories? One of my current WIPs is a long-term story following the growth of the MC. That’s fine, and I do have it fairly planned, but I’m running into trouble with showing her changing and not bogging down the plot too much. I suppose it’s the doldrums in a sense, but rather necessary doldrums because the reader needs proof that she’s changing before she becomes someone different.

Right now I’m stuck in an area that needs multiple (mostly) happy scenes in a row before more Drama (TM) can get introduced, and… the only time I’m very good at happy scenes, unfortunately, is as setup for something to go Terribly Wrong. Happy scenes with no immediately linked tragic payoff are proving to be troublesome.                  

Erica wrote back, Could you try writing comedy? Not necessarily comedic scenes in your WIP, but a story whose entire purpose is to be funny. That way, you can experiment with having tension without drama, if that makes sense. And letting your characters play off each other can help show how your MC is changing, especially if she responds in an unexpected way.

I’m with Erica about small, unexpected changes in an MC that form a dotted line that the reader follows and thus understands her transformation.

It’s hard to write back-to-back happy scenes. Readers need something to worry about, although the worry can be mild, like an itch in the middle of your back. It’s not going to kill you, but it’s there, out of reach, and you have to keep reading to discover when and how it gets scratched.

(Clinically, there is such an itch, notalgia paresthetica, benign, long lasting, going away eventually, between your shoulder blades, perpetually an inch beyond your finger, invented by a minor demon in a mean universe. Mine did finally vanish.)

Lysander Grey’s question called to mind the novels of Kevin Henkes, especially The Birthday Room, which I remember as gentle and tender and full of slice-of-life. At the heart of the story is family conflict, but the conflict plays out among people who love each other. No one is tossed out or runs away. There’s no violence. I don’t think there’s even much anger. Yet my eyes were glued to the page. Kevin Henkes, in my opinion, is a master of slice-of-life and always worth reading.

I’m also thinking about Anne of Green Gables, which is a coming-of-age story, not dark, also full of slice-of-life moments (like dying her hair green, falling off a roof, breaking a slate over Gilbert Blythe’s head) that nudge Anne toward character change. Author L. M. Montgomery sets up Anne’s personality in technicolor detail: she has a temper and an imagination. She’s over-the-top dramatic, emotional, loving and lovable, and given to getting into funny and disastrous scrapes. Also, she’s capable of learning from the messes she gets into.

We can adapt Montgomery’s method. We think first about the transformation our plot calls for. Then we plan our MC. How can we make her different from what she needs to become? What traits will have to change? What will remain? She has to start out as someone we can imagine turning into the personality we need.

Next step takes us to the slice-of-life scenes. What can we cause to happen as a result of the person she is? For example, Anne hates her red hair, and she’s impulsive, which leads to an attempt to dye her hair the color she wants, resulting in green hair. This disaster plants a seed of a lesson that she shouldn’t instantly act on her impulses in the future. Erica’s idea comes in here; there’s a lot of humor in Anne’s scrapes.

For Anne, growth comes slowly and therefore believably. Montgomery sticks mostly to showing, but late in the book she does this little bit of showing: There were other changes in Anne no less real than the physical change. For one thing, she became much quieter. Perhaps she thought all the more and dreamed as much as ever, but she certainly talked less. We too can drop in a tiny bit of this, though most of the change should be shown in action, thoughts, and dialogue.

My novel that most features character transformation is The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre. My MC Perry is born into the underclass Bamarre but is raised as an overlord Lakti, and she’s ignorant of her birth. Lakti tend to be rigid, not highly emotional, restrained, direct, not literary. Bamarre are polite, accommodating, emotional, poets, and admirers of poetry.

Except for her love for poetry, Perry exemplifies the Lakti personality. When her origins are discovered, she has to live with her Bamarre family. A fairy tasks her with lifting her people out of servitude, but first she has to become more like them.

Though this is a fantasy, Perry doesn’t drink a potion. She has to work at changing herself, and she blunders in several slice-of-life scenes. The reader sees Bamarre life at the ground level, how they behave among themselves, how they act with Lakti, what their customs and habits are.

So what do we have?

  • A plot reason for a transformation.
  • A character designed to have difficulty making the change.
  • A character for whom success will be hard but believable when achieved.
  • Slice-of-life scenes through which we show our MC mess up on her way to change, whether she wants the change or not.

Here are three prompts:

  • The tortoise and the hare are about to race. Neither knows that the other is a shapeshifter. Both think they’re certain to win. Write the race.
  • The chicken’s wings have been clipped, yet she has to cross the road, a busy interstate, to save her chicks. Traffic is constant. She will have to become Super Chicken to do it. Don’t let her fail. Write the story.
  • The evil fairy has managed, fifty years ahead of time, to end the slumber of Sleeping Beauty and everyone in the castle. Her prince won’t be born for another thirty or so years. More important, though, the hedge is still intact and still impregnable. SB and everyone else will starve if they can’t get to the outside world. And if they do get out, chaos reigns in the kingdom after decades of misrule. Write the story of the transformation of SB from pampered royal to capable leader.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. I’ve been wondering about a similar thing for one of my stories. Most of it centers around the plot, but I’ve also been wanting to show more of the cultures of the different kingdoms without slowing down the story too much. This is really helpful; thank you!

  2. Mrs. Levine, I have a completely random question. In Anne’s House of Dreams, Anne states that: “I wonder why everyone thinks that two writers will like each other, simply because they are writers. No one would suppose that two blacksmiths would like each other because they were blacksmiths.” This may not be exactly what she says, but close enough. I have the same question, phrased rather differently: Why do writers have such a familiarity? After all, there are writers advice columns, blogs like this one, groups, classes, clubs… but there aren’t all these things for say, farriers or blacksmiths.
    Does anyone have a theory about this?

    • Maybe because writing requires a special personality, where blacksmithing mostly requires training and muscles? But then you have all the different kinds of writers, with extremely different tastes and personalities and preferences. Like how the author of a picture book and the author of an adult horror novel are both writers, but they probably wouldn’t run in the same circles.
      Alternate hypothesis: Blacksmiths really do have all those groups and clubs, it’s just that no one but blacksmiths ever goes looking for them. Maybe it just feels like there are more writers’ groups because writing is a lot more accessible to the general public. You don’t need a lot of terminology or skill to understand what a writer is saying. And it’s a lot easier to be an amateur writer than an amateur blacksmith. But I’m making this up as I type it, so who knows?

    • I think there’s just something that really bonds artists. We all go through the same struggles, all have the same ups and downs, and we like to talk to other writers because they get our craft and can relate to us. Another thing is that writing presents a lot of questions, and we go to each other for answers. In other fields, there is often one right answer, but in writing there isn’t. Also, writers have the need for feedback – we can’t always know that our work is good just by looking at it. All of those things connect us and make us want to be around each other.

      I also agree with Katie W. in that there are likely clubs and things for other careers – perhaps not as many though, at least for things like blacksmiths – and they are just not talked about as much.

      There are just my opinions, though. It’s an interesting topic.

      • Gail Carson Levine says:

        I’ve thought about this too. When I was painting and drawing, I didn’t find as much help as I did when I got into writing. Maybe I was just unlucky back then. Or it may be that writers’ medium is words, which makes us more able to help each other.

        • That’s an interesting thought – I hadn’t thought about the idea that our love for and understanding of words might be part of it.

          • Thanks! I love the theory that the love for words connect us, and that writers relate to each other. I’m new to the blog, so it was really great that you all responded, I thought it was kind of a non-related question at first. Also, Mrs. Levine? Have you posted since this post? If you have, it’s just not showing up no matter how many times I reload this blog.

  3. Any advice on what to do with stories where people have told you they’re really good, but they’re so out of character you don’t really want your name attached to them? Like a horror story when you mostly write comedy, or vice versa. A pen name would be the obvious solution, but I don’t want to deal with a second identity. For now, said pieces are banished to a far corner of my hard drive, but I still feel like I should do SOMETHING with them, even though I don’t know what it should be.

      • Two stories. Mandatory writing assignments that went off the rails a bit. (Isn’t that the story of all writing, though? Except maybe the “mandatory” part.)

        • You could always try kindle vella, or some other platform different than you intend to publish with. There’s not a ton of reader crossover between serials like vella, short story magazine readers, and full book readers.

  4. I have a question. I started writing a story four years ago and am still working in it. (It had several false starts.) At this point, I really just want to finish it and start revising, but I seem to be unconsciously adding more stuff. How do I make it end?

    • You’re welcome to finish your rough draft and start restructuring. Usually when I turn a rough draft into a first draft, I end up having to rewrite parts and even write all new sections anyway. You’ll still have opportunities to fit in new stuff.

      I’ve used a couple different methods. When I was first starting out, I turned every scene into a small phrase or title. Then I reorganized those phrases into a logical order, including inserting a new one where there are gaps in the plot. These days I use story structure. I write down the eight parts of a story and sort the events of the story into those eight parts (in depth explanation here:

    • Go ahead and write your ideal ending scene, then do the absolute bare minimum number of scenes to get there, full of summary and time-jumping. Write the 250-word summary of everything that still needs to happen, then copy and paste it into the story. Write “The End” after finishing your current chapter. Or just deliberately break your writing habit (Not recommended if you’re in the middle of a scene). The possibilities are endless.

    • I’d advise you to write a summary of your story as you want it to be. Maybe make a possible list of possible endings, and see which one would be easiest/best for your story.

  5. I have a question. On top of writing my WIP, I’ve decided to start a big project of coming up with my own mythology. I have several ideas for the gods/goddesses and for the magic. But I’m worried that it’ll be too similar to the mythology written by other authors (and the original mythology they used in their books). Does anyone have any tips on how to make my magic, gods/goddesses and the world the mythology sets place in, more unique?

    • One thing to keep in mind is that all mythology has a lot in common. Most systems have a storm god, a fertility goddess, and a god of death. It’s the details that make myths stand out. If you want a unique mythology, you could base it off of a less well-known culture, or just think about what you need for your story and start thinking of explanations. The good news is, since you’re writing it, it won’t be exactly like anyone else’s. Look at a few different collections of Greek myths, and you’ll see what I mean.

      • My idea would be to make a list of how your magic is the same as the magic systems you feel that they are the same as, and then a list of how you can make them different, and then a list of how they’re already different.
        Sorry, I love plotting and lists.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.