Hi, Pal, I’m Water!

On June 5, 2021, Fantasywriter6 wrote, What is the best way to have a form of nature communicate with people? The sort of magic that my MC has is that she can speak to water. I want the water to have a definite personality, but I don’t know how whether to show that personality by having it “speak” back to my MC or simply by what it does and describing the water from her point of view (what she understands about it). The “water-speaking” is telepathic; she doesn’t just walk up to the ocean and say, “Hey, what’s up, Ocean?” But should I write the water responding in (telepathic) words or a feeling that she gets or just what the water decides to do?

Three of you wrote back

Katie W.: Sounds like a group in one of my stories that I call water-dancers. Water carries images from where it’s been, and when the water-dancers touch it, the images appear in their minds. Sometimes with sounds, sometimes not, depending on the circumstances. Which images they get are fairly touch-and-go, but if they focus on a specific thing they want to know about (like how far away someone/something is) they can usually get an answer. So the image transfer goes both ways, to the point where they can control the water by picturing what they want it to do, although how much water they can control depends on the dancer. The most powerful can also receive prophecies, but I haven’t figured out how that would work yet.

Long story short, my MC can both send and receive mental (it doesn’t appear in her reflection or anything like that) images from water.

i  writing: I feel like, if you want the water to have a personality, you should have it reply in telepathic words.

Kyryiann: I have a book where the MC talks to dolphins. The dolphins have different personalities, but they don’t use words. Instead, they send her images and feelings telepathically.

At the time, I wrote that Fantasywriter6’s question touches on worldbuilding.

There isn’t a “best” way for a part of nature to communicate with people, or a best way to do almost anything in writing. The story itself, its problem, can help us figure out what we can use in most cases. This goes for worldbuilding in general. We create the world our story needs—except for the embellishments we may throw in for fun, but not too many because we don’t want to overload or distract our readers.

For example, I figure Fantasywriter6’s MC’s power and water itself are integral to the plot. Is there a drought? Floods? Are wells being poisoned? Are fish—or mermaids—getting sick? Is water distressed over whichever it may be? Or is water angry and creating the problem? Is water mad at the MC in particular?

There are so many questions. Can water decide it doesn’t want to communicate, because its feelings were hurt or it’s annoyed or the equivalent of its throat is sore? Does water have a personality?

Can water express itself clearly? Dogs, for instance, can’t tell us what hurts, which is maddening, especially since they’re good at communicating that something does. And good at expressing many needs. Water could be sort of like dogs.

Let’s imagine that the well that waters the king’s castle has been poisoned and the water doesn’t want anyone to get sick. Our MC is a kitchen maid and has to fetch water for cooking. Unaware of the poisoning, she telepathically chirps to the well water about what beautiful weather they’re having. How does the water communicate about the poisoning? It’s easy if the water can speak telepathically (in the language of the MC or in the language of water, in which our MC is fluent). Since that’s easy, let’s put it to the side and make a list of other possibilities. How else might the well let our MC know something is amiss?

  • Water rises out of the well and splashes her.
  • The water makes itself freeze so that she hears a clank and her bucket comes back empty.
  • Steam rises that smells like sulfur.

Of course, the water does whatever it does only because our MC has the power to connect with it. Anyone else would get seriously dangerous water.

Your turn for an early prompt. Think of five more possible ways the water can express itself. (The reason for five is that they may not be easy to think of. When your brain feels squeezed, it is likely to send some silly ideas and some that will surprise you and yield unexpected possibilities. If five come right away, go for five or ten more. Brain squeeze is good.)

Suppose we pick the splashing. We don’t have to explain everything. We don’t need to tell the reader that the well water, say, gathered itself and created its own version of a basketball player’s musculature so that it could make the water zoom up, because then we’d have to explain how it knew about muscles and basketball, and it would never end, and our story would, so to speak, dissolve. Instead, we can just show the splash and our MC’s reaction when a tiny drop (too little to hurt her) lands on her tongue and tastes sour.

In the process, we’ve advanced our plot with the poisoning. We’ve expanded our worldbuilding because we’ve discovered how water communicates. And we’ve learned a little about the benevolence of water, or at least of the water in this particular well. Plot, worldbuilding, character. And setting comes into it too: the castle and well water rather than water piped in from a reservoir. Not bad!

Here are three more prompts:

  • You were expecting this. Write the story of the poisoned well.
  • Write a story about an MC or a villain who is a cloud persuader.
  • A civil war is in progress, and your MC or your villain has the power to combine and separate. Write the story.

Have fun, and save what you write!

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      I hope someone else can be helpful about this. I haven’t thought about writing irony or made a special effort to bring it into a story. Thinking about it, though, irony always seems to put one thing next to another, like a character is driving to the wedding of a dear friend and never gets there because she gets stuck in traffic caused by cars following a hearse on the way to a funeral, and the deceased turns to be a teacher who was very mean to the dear friend. That’s ironic, right?

      I guess some plot twists can be ironic. Irony doesn’t seem to usually end in a happy place, but I imagine that a double twist can reverse a sad, ironic outcome.

      Anyone else, please?

      • I feel like irony requires a certain sardonic sense of humor, so it’s funny in a dark sort of way. Basically sarcasm, but with situations instead of words. In a story I wrote in high school, I had a couple characters get into a fight, and one of them was scratched by the other’s CTR ring (it stands for “choose the right”). Getting hurt by a reminder to choose the right is definitely ironic.

        Sometimes, things are only ironic in hindsight, or with information the character doesn’t know. In one WIP, the male main character thinks that his shy betrothed might be “a whole different person once he gets to know her”. He has no idea how ironic this thought is, because she sometimes dresses up as a cabin boy and goes to sea under a different name, so she very much can be a “whole different person”. You can also use this as foreshadowing if you, for instance, end a chapter with a character thinking, “At least she was safe now” or “Her problems were now solved” or something like that, where there’s just enough context that the reader knows that the character is very, very wrong.

        And, I don’t know if this is necessary or not, but for me, most of my ironic moments weren’t planned out before hand. They occurred to me as I was writing and I stuck them in. Irony is a sort of humor, if dark, and I think that’s harder to force/plan out.

    • Beta-reading is having someone read a rough draft of a story and comment on it so the author knows what should be changed for the next draft. Basically just getting people besides you to read the story and make sure everything is working properly.

      • If you want to get technical, some people differentiate between alpha-reading, which is what you described with the rough draft, and beta-reading, which is where people read a draft that you’ve edited a little first. So alpha-reading is more likely to be a story that isn’t finished yet, while beta-reading might have a complete but sloppy draft already written.

        But, you know, not everyone makes that distinction.

  1. Okay! Thanks for explaining it. I sort of do that when I email friends or family a first draft. [I’ve never gotten to a second draft.]

  2. Is it just me, or is there a typo on page 51, paragraph 3, sentence 4 of ‘Princess Sonora and the Long Sleep?’ I just got it from the library and am reading it for the first time, so please correct me if I wrong! [ Also, I think it’s pretty good so far.]

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      I’m glad you’re enjoying it!
      I can’t find a copy. I have the anthologized versions but the page numbering would be different. Can you type out the sentence or the whole paragraph?

  3. Sure!

    “Aaaaa! Aaaaa! Aaaaa! Help! Treason! Aaaaa! Aaaaa!” Have to get it out of here! “Aaaaa!” Protect Sonora! “Aaaaa!” She grabbed the spindle. “Aaaaa!” Had to run! She ran around the room, not nowing where to go. “Aaaaa!” The shed! She had to get it to the shed! “Aaaaa!” She ran out of the room.

    I thought that maybe when it read ‘Had to run!’ it was supposed to be either ‘Have to run!’ or ‘She had to run!’

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      I’m copying it back in to discuss:
      “Aaaaa! Aaaaa! Aaaaa! Help! Treason! Aaaaa! Aaaaa!” Have to get it out of here! “Aaaaa!” Protect Sonora! “Aaaaa!” She grabbed the spindle. “Aaaaa!” Had to run! She ran around the room, not knowing where to go. “Aaaaa!” The shed! She had to get it to the shed! “Aaaaa!” She ran out of the room.

      It’s not a typo, but I think I could have made it better, because you picked up the ambiguity that I shouldn’t have created. Here’s what I think I should have written:

      “Aaaaa! Aaaaa! Aaaaa! Help! Treason! Aaaaa! Aaaaa!” Have to get it out of here! “Aaaaa!” Protect Sonora! “Aaaaa!” She grabbed the spindle. Had to run! “Aaaaa!” She ran around the room, not knowing where to go. “Aaaaa!” The shed! She had to get it to the shed! “Aaaaa!” She ran out of the room.

      What do you think?

      • Song4myKing says:

        That does make it clearer, although confusion is kinda ok too in that particular paragraph, I think. 🙂

        But it also makes me wonder, do you frequently spot things in your published work that you wish you had done differently? I’m still pre-published, and I’m constantly fixing little things. Sometimes I wonder if I’ll still be finding things I wish I could fix after it’s already out in the big wide world.

        • Gail Carson Levine says:

          I don’t often read my published books and stories, but when I do, I find things I’m not entirely satisfied with. Ah, well. There is no such thing as a perfect book–and mine are evidence of that!

  4. Brambles and Bees says:

    I am in a bit of a predicament. I am currently struggling with actually finding the motivation to keep going with my current stories. It seems that I can start a book and get through a handful of chapters, but then my interest wanes and I slow in my writing. It appears to usually be because I read another author’s story, and I love the way they wrote everything so much, and I love their plots and characters, and I want to write some amazing novel like them, but I feel as though my current story isn’t good enough. I keep looking for these perfect plots and perfect characters and I eventually lose faith in my own stories. How do I stop setting the bar at perfection? How do I maintain my interest and keep working with my stories?

    • To quote from Chapter 17 of Writing Magic, “There is no such thing as a perfect book or a perfect story. Every book in every library has something wrong with it. It could be something tiny. Maybe a minor character isn’t well drawn. Maybe a description goes on too long. Maybe the dialogue is stiff in one spot. There’s something wrong with every single one.” It goes on to talk about how no two readers would agree on what makes a “perfect” book, and how writing is a skill just like any other. You have to be bad before you can be good.
      If you want a starting point, there are 7 posts on this blog about not finishing stories and 9 about self-criticism (Just go to the Categories menu and scroll till you find them). And I would also recommend reading your story and pretending someone else wrote it. Where are the good parts? What gets you excited? What does the author of this story (who we’re pretending isn’t you) do well? Make a list and look at it every time you start losing interest. Story getting boring? Throw in some worldbuilding or dialogue or character description or a totally random plot twist or whatever your particular specialty is. You can always cut it later if it doesn’t work. If you need a deadline to get the story done, show what you have to someone who you know will beg you to finish it and keep asking what happens next.
      And if all else fails, track down a copy of the worst book you can find and read it to remind yourself that at least you’re a better writer than SOMEBODY.

    • Miss Maddox says:

      Sometimes I like to talk about my story with someone I trust (for me it’s my brother). It helps me figure out what I’m not liking about the story (and what I DO like) and how I can fix it. I also free write sometimes if I can’t talk to someone, though I find that a real person is better for me, because they can offer encouragement and suggestions.

  5. ReaderandWriter says:

    I often get bored of writing my stories. I find that writing other things (such as writing a letter from my MC to his best friend. Or writing a journal entry that my MC wrote.) that will NOT go into my book keeps me motivated to keep writing.

    I hope this helps you.

    • Brambles and Bees says:

      I will definitely go look through some of those past blog posts. And I’ll try what you suggested as well ReaderandWriter. Thank you both for your help.

  6. Miss Maddox says:

    Does anyone have any tips for co-writing stories? My brother and I will be working on a story together this summer, but we’ve never really co-written anything before. My most important goal is that we just have fun together, so my question is less how to make the craft side of it work and more how to make the experience enjoyable. This is really important to me, because it’s been a while since my brother has written anything for fun, and I want to make sure it doesn’t just feel like work to him.

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      I love this idea–writing with a relative or friend for fun! This method comes from improvisational comedy, called “Yes, and…” In improv, the actors just keep building on whatever comes up. Your story may get a little wild and very creative. YES, AND nothing’s wrong with that!

      Anybody else?

    • NerdyNiña says:

      Gail’s comment reminds me of a fun book called Improv for Writers (I don’t remember the author, but it’s published by Ten Speed Press). It has writing games, some of which need two writers. Basically, the whole book is an expansion of Yes, and. If you’re taking your writing too seriously, the book has great suggestions for loosening up and having fun.

    • ReaderandWriter says:

      I have a brainstorming activity. You and your brother both write some random paragraphs (Your paragraphs don’t need to be related to each other). Once each of you have about 5, print them off the computer. Cut your paragraphs so that they are separate. Mix and match one of your paragraphs with one your brother wrote. Read them out loud and see where this leads you!

    • Song4myKing says:

      Here’s an idea my students and I had fun with (credit where credit is due: I got the basis for this idea from the Writing Excuses podcast, back in the archives, in season ten):

      Day one, everyone wrote a piece of dialogue, action, description, and speech tags included; then on another paper, they wrote out just the bare bones of the dialogue, just what was said.

      Day two, we swapped papers, so everyone had a bare bones dialogue that they hadn’t written. We then had to flesh that out with actions, speech tags, etc. The results were quite interesting!

      This wouldn’t work as well for the whole story, but it could get you started.

    • Hey, that’s a great idea and quite coincidental that I tried it with my own brother some time ago! We didn’t finish any super long story, but we used this website: https://outofcontext.party/ to write some pretty hilarious short stories. (You can adjust the settings to allow different numbers of sentences to show up from what was previously written; this results in a sometimes cohesive and almost always funny story written by you and the other players.) And you maybe you won’t use the website for “real” writing — but just to have a fun time with others.

      Anyway, I think one thing that can make a co-written story fun is bringing back elements from previous parts of the story into the plot again in unexpected ways. This also has the side effect of creating inside jokes that last for a while 😉

      • Miss Maddox says:

        I love the idea about bringing elements back into the story later on. I think we’ll probably be doing that. Thank you for the great idea!

      • NerdyNiña says:

        Thank you! I originally wrote it from the stepmother’s perspective, then decided it might be interesting to see the mirror-creature’s point of view, and rewrote it.

    • That’s so cool! I love the stepmother. She’s really good. And the plot twist was, too. You never know where a retelling is going to take you.

      • NerdyNiña says:

        Thank you! She’s a character I’ve been working with for a couple of years now, and I was so glad to be able to fit her into a story that’s actually completed (as opposed to the jumbled outline where she currently resides).

      • NerdyNiña says:

        Thank you! I wanted to write about a mirror that sort of kept people trapped emotionally, and this is how it came out.

  7. That was amazing! I would love to read the rest of it! {there is a ‘rest of it,’ right? Or am I just missing something?}

    • NerdyNiña says:

      Thank you! Yes, there’s more in my mind, but it’s not written. This is flash fiction (<1000 words), and it's a story that stands by itself. Hopefully, one day I will write the novel that it's part of.

  8. My soon-to-be WIP is a self-discovery/romance/school story/Cinderella retelling, and I’m already having trouble figuring out the balance between the different elements. How soon would you expect to meet the romantic interest, and how much emphasis would you expect on personal growth versus the growth of the relationship?

    • I could see either working, depending on what you’d prefer to write and what you’re going for. The more important the romance is to the whole story, the earlier you’ll want to introduce the love interest. If a more structured system appeals to you, there are romance beat sheets that break down the steps into an easy-to-follow method. Here’s one: https://jamigold.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/Romance-Beat-Sheet-Sample.jpg

      In romance books especially, I feel like the personal and relationship growths are intertwined, so you can’t have one without the other. Whatever it is that’s holding the character back from the relationship is probably the same thing, or at least directly related to the same thing, that’s holding back the personal growth (Elizabeth and Darcy’s pride and prejudice, for example). In my WIP (The Captain’s Dowry), the main character fears losing her autonomy and overemphasizes her individuality and uniqueness, which hold her back from connecting with other people, including her love interest and the rest of the world. Even if it’s something external like feuding families, the main character probably has her own prejudices to work through as well.

      • Big fan of ALL of this, and I would only add that another great beat sheet that this one may be in conversation with is Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! Beat Sheet– I use that myself as an occasional romance writer and find it very intuitive. All you have to do is set the goal as the characters getting together (which, as you said, ought to be dependent on the MC developing through her own issues) and then make it so that, at the high points, everything seem like it’ll work out for the MC & her relationship, and at the low points, it looks like there’s no way it’ll ever work out. Gets me every time.

    • I don’t have much advise to give on the matter, seeing as how I’m twelve, but I like to write a bit of romance as well. I say, that unless it is major part in the story, don’t put too much of the romance in it, or it will drive your readers – who are looking for school stories – away. Also, unless you’ve already planned it out, just write what feels right to you.
      I other words, write whatever! Perfecting is for revision!

  9. InsertNameHere says:

    Does anybody have any advice for getting readers invested in a relationship where the characters are apart for the majority of the story? In my WIP, the leads have known each other their whole lives, but only interact for a little bit in the beginning of the story before one of them leaves and the other spends the rest of the story trying to find them. I’m worried I won’t be able to properly show their dynamic, and that reader’s won’t care enough about their relationship for it to carry the whole story. Does anyone have any thoughts?

    • Miss Maddox says:

      Ella Enchanted does this really well. For part of the book, Char and Ella are apart, but their relationship continues to grow during this time. The two main things I noticed that Ms. Levine did (and I’m sure there are more) was having them write letters to each other, and having Ella think about Char. In Ella Enchanted, we’ve already read about the memories she’s thinking about, so it mostly shows us how her feelings for Char are changing over time. But in your story, if we don’t see all of their childhood together, memories could show us more of the dynamic so we better understand their relationship.

      The Princess Academy trilogy by Shannon Hale also does this very well. For a lot of all three of the books, Miri, the MC, is far away from her love interest/best friend, Peder. Letters and memories are key to their relationship’s growth. Miri also often wishes Peder were there to help her, or imagines pretend conversations with him. You could also show thoughts like that in addition to memories. Ella Enchanted also does this.

    • Oh, man, this makes me think of “What if It’s Us!” That’s a great New Adult novel where the guys have a meetcute early on… and don’t see each other again for a full hundred pages. I was shocked at how emotional I got. And I’m not sure why, honestly, so all I can do is give the rec ;^^

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