Meet Un-cute

On May 6, 2020, Christie V Powell wrote, If you were reading a book with two POVs, a girl and a guy of comparable age, would you expect them to become a couple? The genre is fantasy.

A conversation followed:

Erica: Unless they were related, already interested in other people, younger than about ten, or vast distances apart, yes. On the other hand, I like to be surprised. Do what you feel like is best for your story.

Katie W.: I would expect them to, but I would also be happy if they weren’t, because I get tired of having every story I read be a romance. I think the comment thread about romance vs. friendship a couple posts back made some good points about this.

Melissa Mead: Yes, but I’d love to see more books that subvert that expectation.

Raina: If it’s a MG book? Maybe. In that case, though, unless it’s really upper MG (bordering on YA, like the later Percy Jackson and Harry Potter books), I wouldn’t expect there to be a lot of romance, even if they do end up together. More like subtle crushes or really strong friendships that develop into something more, not “you’re the love of my life and I will spend the rest of my life with you” type of romance found in some YA books.

If it’s YA? Yes, almost certainly. Not so much because I personally need to have romance in all of my books (honestly I’d love to see more strong, platonic friendships in YA), but because 99% of YA books have some kind of romantic relationship between the main characters, and it’s pretty much a genre convention at this point. I can think of one book that subverts this–THIS SAVAGE SONG by Victoria Schwab, which is also a Fantasy featuring dual male/female POVS who go on an adventure together but end up as close friends, not lovers–but that’s an exception among the norm.

That being said though, you don’t have to purposefully follow OR deliberately subvert genre conventions by any means. Romance is great when it’s well written, but platonic male/female friendships are also something I’d love to see more of.

Christie V Powell: This one is supposed to be adult. There are definitely romance subplots, but they each have one with someone else, not each other. They’ve mentioned that they might be related, but I haven’t decided if they are half-siblings, or if they aren’t, or if I just leave it a mystery and no one ever knows for sure.

SilverSky: Me and my friend are actually going to do this and each write a P.O.V! They definitely won’t be interested in each other. They are around the age of 14 and 15 I think (haven’t started writing it quite yet. Quarantine got in the way of getting together).

If I were reading the book, I think I would still have them just be close friends. If you’re talking adult characters then I would probably expect a closer bond.

Of course, if one (or both) is gay, the reader won’t expect romance.

I once asked a dental hygienist if the first thing she noticed when she met people was their teeth. She said Yes! and added that when she and her ex-husband got serious, she told him she couldn’t marry him unless he dealt with the disaster going on in his mouth–which he did, and the marriage lasted long enough for their daughter to grow to adulthood.

(I wondered how she could tolerate working on me and my tan teeth, caused by my weird habit for many years of chewing cinnamon sticks.)

To me, the heart of Christie V Powell’s question is how we create and manage reader expectations, especially about characters.

In our narration, we can quickly shut down a romanic expectation with something like this: Stacey’s friends were always intense, tightly focused, twitching with energy. But for romance, she preferred laid-back, go-with-the-flow types.

Then, when Brian, wound like a spring, shows up, the reader understands he’s only friend material.

For each of our two POV characters we can think of what would be romantic deal-breakers. Evie in Ogre Enchanted, for example, couldn’t fall for someone with a weak sense of humor.

The deal-breaker could be physical, though we have to be careful with that, because we don’t want readers to feel bad about the way they look. My first date, maybe at the age of fourteen, was with a boy who was at least six-feet-two and I never made it to five feet. I had to reach up to hold his hand. Nerds that we were, we went to a museum in New York City, and on our way there, people from two blocks away pointed at us and laughed. This isn’t to my credit, but I was too embarrassed ever to date him again.

Again from Ogre Enchanted, which explores romantic attachment, Evie asks her mother what made her mother fall in love with her father, who died before the beginning of the book. Part of her mother’s answer is about the tingle she felt with him. We can use absence of some variant on tingle to let readers know that love between two characters is not to be.

In my beloved Pride and Prejudice, any thoughts the reader may have of romance between Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Collins, heir to Mr. Bennett’s estate, are dashed even before he shows up, by his letter, which is pompous and odd. This exchange between Elizabeth and her father follows his reading of the letter:

        “‘He must be an oddity, I think,’ said she. ‘I cannot make him out.—There is something very pompous in his style.—And what can he mean by apologising for being next in the entail?—We cannot suppose he would help it if he could.—Could he be a sensible man, sir?’
        “‘No, my dear, I think not. I have great hopes of finding him quite the reverse. There is a mixture of servility and self-importance in his letter, which promises well. I am impatient to see him.’”

Mr. Collins’s goose is cooked!

By contrast, let’s look at this from Jane Eyre, following her first meeting with Mr. Rochester, when he’s fallen off his horse and she doesn’t yet know who he is:

    “The new face, too, was like a new picture introduced to the gallery of memory; and it was dissimilar to all the others hanging there: firstly, because it was masculine; and, secondly, because it was dark, strong, and stern.”

Oh, my! The reader is primed in a single sentence for the cosmos-shaking love that follows.

(Just saying, I adored Jane Eyre in my teens, but when I revisited it decades later, my opinion of Mr. Rochester plummeted.)

So, we guide reader expectation in romance just as in everything else, like world-building, and, like world-building, the sooner the better. Our introduction to Mr. Collins and to Mr. Rochester don’t come early in the respective novels, but they come early in their entry to the story. We don’t want to give the reader a chance to form a different idea, which we’ll have to labor to reverse.

I don’t mean there can’t be surprises. Jane Austen doesn’t guide the reader’s idea of another possible romantic interest, Mr. Wickham, immediately. She wants to surprise the reader. That decision will depend a lot on our plot.

As always, we convey expectations to our readers through narration or thoughts or dialogue or feeling, or a combination of more than one. Anticipation about Stacey’s romantic interests are set up in my first example through narration. We can even use narration to address the reader the old-fashioned way: Dear Reader, do not expect love to spring up between these two. Yes, there will be mutual respect, but their romantic destinies lie elsewhere.

The P&P example uses dialogue, the Jane Eyre one thoughts (or narration–I’m not sure). But we can use thoughts. Here’s Brian: I walked home and ran over the afternoon in my mind. Stacey was nice, sure, but every five seconds she scratched her neck or her arm or rubbed her nose, like an itchy dog, except dogs are adorable no matter what they do.

Not promising.

Here’s Stacey’s feelings: Brian ordered spaghetti and dug in. Stacey’s stomach turned when he slurped, when spaghetti strands wriggled from his mouth, when red sauce dribbled down his chin.

Hard to get past that.

Christie V Powell, if you continued with your project since you asked your question, how did it turn out? Was there a romance?

Here are three prompts:

• Dr. Watson has broken multiple bones in a fall from his horse. He sends in his sister to sub for him as Sherlock Holmes’s assistant. Write their meeting from his point of view and show that he’s drawn to her.

• Using the scenario above, now write their meeting from her point of view and show that, while she admires Sherlock’s mind, she finds him romantically unappealing.

• Write the scene that follows the one above, in which Holmes deduces the impression he’s made and works to change it. Decide whether or not he succeeds.

Have fun, and save what youwrite!

The Remodel

On April 22, 2020, Writeforfun wrote, I’ve just finished my current book! Or well, the first in what seems to have turned into a series. There’s lot’s more to go, but I’ve come to the end of this one, at least. So, yeah, happy dance! But I’m wondering – I know there are many posts on here about editing so I’m definitely going to go back over all of those – but I’m just wondering, any opinions on the best way to edit a first draft that has changed a LOT since the beginning and is rather a bit of a jumbled mess? I pantsed this book, just to give it a try (I’m usually a planner), and the story has meandered and changed a ton since the beginning, and didn’t really get on a particular track until about halfway through. Normally when I finish a book, I’ll go through from the beginning of the manuscript and just tweak things as I go (which works, since the plot hasn’t really wavered from the beginning so I’m usually only making minor changes); but this time I’m talking major changes – entire characters and plot points that I dropped halfway through, 50-page events that I need to add or remove, or shuffle or swap with different portions of the story – things like that. It’s daunting! How do you keep it all organized? I’m almost wondering if it would be better to start a brand new document and just re-write the story…although, I don’t really want to do that because I ended up accidentally making it about 500 pages long (though hopefully I’ll manage to cut that down a bit)!

I’m just wondering if there’s any particular great process for editing a book that needs a LOT of changes! Advice? I know some people are great at editing and really enjoy it. I am not, and do not – so if you have a process that works well I’d love to hear about it.

Two of you wrote back:

Christie V Powell: One thing I’ve been doing with my WIP is using Word’s styles/headings feature and labeling each scene, chapter, and act. It makes it easier to see structure at a glance and to figure out how to move things around. Another tip: save a new copy every time you start a major draft. It gives you more freedom to experiment (I copied Gail’s suggestion from “Writing Magic” about putting numbers after each draft, although the number of drafts I need has been getting smaller as I keep writing).

Erica: If you’re normally a planner, then I would suggest writing an outline of your story using whatever method you like, and then rewriting individual pieces to fit the outline better. That way, it’s easier to stay on track and you’re less likely to end up making more big dramatic changes without realizing it.

Congratulations for finishing! I hope I said that at the time too!

As I’ve said often, I love to revise. It’s my favorite part.

I like my advice from Christie V Powell’s lips! Versions are super helpful because nothing is lost. When the change is ultra-big, I rename the document so the revision and the earlier incarnation are easier to find, like one version may be called Wolf friend 3. The hugely changed version might be Wolf no friend 1–because I took out the friendship. Or, often when I’ve started revising for my editor, I might name the next version Wolf RB edit 1 (her initials). When I’m completely done and the manuscript is beyond even copy editing, I can count my versions. Many versions means this was a tough book to write. I find that satisfying to know.

I agree with Erica that an outline is likely to be helpful. It doesn’t matter that the book is written. An outline helps us see what we have. For me, the outline would go chapter by chapter, summarizing what happens in each one in a few sentences. When we think about what to revise, we can use highlighter so that what we need to do stands out.

A timeline may be useful too. Depending on the book, I’ve used them during revision–and while writing.

Also, a character-by-character description may show us how our cast fits together and which ones are essential and which can be cut. Combined with an outline, the descriptions will show consistencies and inconsistencies in their actions.

For me, another reader is important, especially at the stage Writeforfun is describing. When my manuscript is big and unwieldy, I don’t know what I’ve got, what the most important threads are, what’s working, and what isn’t. A good reader, whether or not the person is a writer, can help us see our book fresh. We may get confirmation that what we think are the problems really are, or we may be surprised. Either way, we’re learning.

As I’ve also said here many times, I almost always toss more than a hundred pages during a revision, so I think we should be willing to make big cuts. As long as we’ve saved the old version, we can be intrepid. It’s astonishing what I thought I needed and how much I discover I can do very well without.

Also, some parts may grow. We are likely to find places that are scant on detail, or where we haven’t sufficiently revealed our MC’s thoughts and feelings.

Writeforfun mentions that her plot gets on a particular track halfway through. We can consider whether the earlier off-track parts should be part of this story, which maybe should start where it finds its way. The deleted pages can be fodder for other books later or earlier in the series. Out of one, many. Cool!

The popular wisdom is to put a manuscript aside for some time, a few days or weeks, in order to get perspective. If we go back to it too quickly, we may be so invested in it we can’t see it clearly. But when my manuscript is more than two hundred pages long, I generally jump right back in, because I don’t remember the beginning well enough to endanger my objectivity.

When the macro editing is done, it’s time for line edits, the part I love most. Do my chapters end in the right place, either in a moment of excitement or in a brief rest? Am I varying my sentence beginnings and the sentences themselves, like, do I keep stringing together independent clauses connected by and or but? Are there words I’m overusing? Can I cut adjectives and adverbs, the weakest parts of speech, like very and almost?

I know I’m done when I find myself changing sentences and then un-changing them.

Here are three prompts:

• Your MC, a book doctor hired to rehab a murder mystery, realizes that her client (who wrote the book that needs work) had his fictional detective miss an important clue, which points to a different perpetrator. After she makes the change, a stranger visits her in the middle of the night. Write the story.

• This is a tad sad: Your MC has invented a time machine so that she can return to the night thirty years earlier when a fire killed her father’s first wife. Sadness at the loss haunted her dad even after he married her mom–and soured their marriage. Your MC, at the risk of never being born, is determined to prevent the fire and save the fiancée. Write the story.

• Your MC, a specter–but the good kind–performs for kids’ birthday parties, creating delightful environments for children to have fun in. And when the party ends, there’s nothing to clean up. However, another specter–the bad kind–is bent on destroying her. The bad one shows up at one of her gigs after another and terrifies the tykes. Your MC suspects the baddie of planning something much worse for the mayor’s son’s party. Write the story.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Time Waits for No One

On April 13, 2020, Clare H. wrote, Any suggestions on a good way to show that time has passed in a book? Currently, my character is twelve, but I want him to be 17 or 18 by the time I hit my climax, that way readers will see him grow. So far I am trying to show that the seasons are changing and I have thought about using holidays almost as checkpoints.

Three of you weighed in:

Erica: Depending on what else you have going on, you might want to put in a big time jump somewhere, such as skipping directly from 14 to 16. I would suggest either making the passage of time fairly slow or fairly fast. If you do put in a big time jump, though, try to have it occur between chapters. It’s less confusing for the readers that way.

Katie W.: I vote for the big time jump. As a reader, I find it much less confusing than simply speeding up time, (i.e., skipping ahead in a movie instead of fast-forwarding.) especially if you can divide the book into parts and have the time jump take place between parts, rather than inside one. A simple “4 years later” (or whatever time interval you want) heading works wonders.

Melissa Mead: Do you want him to go straight from 12 to 17, or show some things happening in between?

Here’s one way I dealt with a big time jump:

“(Juvenile demon) dropped into a hunting crouch beside Malak, who realized with shock that (the youngster) was now as tall as he was. (JD) had changed from a spawnling to a long-legged juvenile before Malak had even thought to notice the transformation. Once, twenty years would have seemed an impossibly long time, but among Aureni years passed almost without notice. He’d lived years upon years, more than a Deeper One could count on hands and feet…”

Thanks, Melissa Mead, for the big-jump demonstration!

I’m with Erica and Katie W. that it’s best not to jump over changes that need to evolve in our story.

I like a direct approach, like seasons and holidays. Chapter headings or book sections can indicate the year–in our world or in a fantasy universe with a different calendar.

Depending on our story, we can use current events rather than years, like Royal Birth, Coronation, Royal Marriage, Assassination, Accession. Not in my case, but in most, we can even use height markers: 4′ 9″, 5′ 2″, etc. Diary entries can work too. July 1, 2008, March 13, 2010, November, 22, 2011. And so on.

We can get creative and have a different character mark the changes, say from a parent to a grandparent in letters, emails, phone calls, texts.

If we’re spanning time with a young MC, we have to think about growth. A twelve-year-old and a seventeen-year-old are different–emotionally, intellectually, and physically. The teenager will have more experience and a broader understanding. For example, if we’re using diary entries, the voice is likely to change over time. And yet, he still has to be the same person, even if the challenges in our plot also cause him to change.

In my opinion, L. M. Montgomery does a great job with this in Anne of Green Gables, one of my childhood faves. At the beginning, Anne speaks at a thousand words a minute with barely time for breath. That fades, though, as she matures. Yet, she remains thoughtful, smart, and imaginative.

These changes will mark time too, more subtly than direct markers, which we’ll probably still need (or I’d still need).

We can list ways our MC may change. Here are a few for starters:
• talkative to quiet, as L. M. Montogomery does it
• quiet to talkative, as our MC becomes more assertive
• incautious to careful
• clumsy to graceful, like Ella after finishing school

What else? List five more.

Then we have to weave these in–draw the reader’s attention to these qualities at the beginning and again later on.

We can also take advantage of plot in the aging of our MC, who at twelve will approach a problem one way, at seventeen another–different, not necessarily improved. We can change the challenges too and raise the stakes.

Having said all this, though, if we can–if our plot lets us–there’s an advantage to having our story happen in a short time, weeks and months rather than years. The advantage is just that it’s a little easier, because we don’t have to work to close the gap, as Clare H. is asking about. LOL: I should talk, because five of my novels progress from my MC’s birth or early childhood to her teen years!

Here are three prompts:

• Intelligent life in the world of your science fiction story is a species that follows the life cycle of a frog: egg, tadpole, frog. It’s a thinking creature every step of the way, but its understanding and temperament change as it goes along. Give your creature a goal or a problem from inception and write its story.

• The evil queen in “Snow White” changes as the story goes along. When the fairy tale opens, she’s beautiful and content; Snow White is barely a blip in her consciousness. After the mirror declares the girl lovelier than she is, she’s filled with rage but not ready to kill Snow White herself, so she commands the hunter to do the dirty deed. When he doesn’t, she’s ready to take over and commit murder. There’s a possible next transformation when she names the punishment that will be inflicted on her (dancing in the red-hot shoes). Write the story in a way that explains the transformations.

• Your MC Marietta is seven when her beloved older sister disappears and she swears to get her back. Your story takes her from seven to fifteen, when she either succeeds or fails definitively. Write the story, showing how she changes as she grows older.

Have fun, and save what you write!

The Dreaded Fog

Once upon a time, on April 13, 2020, Writing Cat Lover wrote, I am actually writing a “Hansel and Gretel” retelling, and I was wondering – how do you figure out the plot? Like, I know that Gretel has to find out in some way that she has magical powers and then eventually go on some kind of quest and defeat some kind of witch, but I am still having trouble figuring the plot out and I’m always losing my way.

I don’t know if that was clear enough or not, but basically here is the summary: I need tips on plotting because all I am really doing is stumbling blindly through the fog of writing.

Two of you responded.

Katie W.: As someone who has stumbled through the fog of writing many times before (and who only really figured out how plotting works a week ago), here are a few tips. 1. Plots are the way characters try to reach their goals. So, if you make a list of the character’s goals and the things they do to achieve them (kind of like New Year’s resolutions), you have the bare bones of an outline. 2. Freytag’s Pyramid (the upside-down triangle that shows action rising and falling over the course of the story) can apply to anything from a scene to a series. Everything has exposition, rising action, a climax, falling action, and a resolution, and if you can find your story’s inciting incident (where the rising action starts), climax, and resolution, you can fit the rest of it around those three points. 3. Feel free to stumble, get hopelessly lost, and backtrack as many times as you need to in order to find your story. It’s easier to plot the second draft than the first.

Kit Kat Kitty: I’ve been where you are so many times before. And what really helped was reading a book about plotting. For me, I didn’t understand plots well enough to hit all the right beats without writing out an outline, and I didn’t know how to write an outline because I didn’t understand plot well enough. I was too scared of all the complicated outline methods out there to watch videos or read articles about them. But when I finally sat down and read a book about plotting (Save The Cat! Write a Novel) it helped me a lot. It has fifteen beats that I used to outline my current WIP. Of course, that isn’t the only plotting method out there, but it worked for me because it was simple, and a very universal outline. (All books have most if not all of the beats whether or not that’s what the author intended. The book goes into this more, and I would highly recommend reading it.) So I was able to grasp it easily.

Of course, if you’re not a plotter, being a pantser is perfectly fine! I’d still recommend reading books about plot so you can absorb all the information and subconsciously get to all the places you need to in your book once you understand what they are. This was my main problem when I tried pantsing novels, I didn’t understand plot nearly as well as I needed to.

I guess I’m saying the best thing to do is research about plot structure, and if you want to plot, research different methods. It might not be easy, but it’ll be worth it. For once, I don’t feel hopelessly lost when I’m writing. For now. I hope this helps.

I agree with Katie W. The first draft isn’t supposed to be perfect, or even good. I’m working on a zero draft right now, which is basically just throw-up in word form on a page, but once I’m done, I’ll have something to work with that’ll (hopefully) eventually become a good story.

I love the idea of a zero draft! That takes the pressure off.

In the version of “Hansel and Gretel” collected by the Brothers Grimm, neither Gretel nor Hansel does anything magical, and there isn’t a quest. You can read a plot summary in Wikipedia. The original may make the plotting easier because we can come up with our own complications.

Writing Cat Lover may be working from an adaptation, which can be tricky. If the adaptation isn’t old enough to be in the public domain there may be infringement issues. I suggest checking this out.

The old fairy tales in their original form are in the public domain, but not necessarily adaptations (a Disney version, for example) or translations (because translations are copy protected too).

By now I’ve fogged and stumbled through a bunch of novels. The sweet ones seemed to want to be written. The meanies (The Two Princesses of Bamarre and, especially, my second fantasy mystery, Stolen Magic) preferred to keep their secrets to themselves. They stuck imaginary tongues out and dared me to write them.

Stolen Magic scarred me. It took over four years to write and didn’t become even a first cousin of the story I hoped to write: a version of the 19th century original fairy tale, “The King of the Golden River” by John Ruskin, which I love for its atmosphere but not so much for its predictable plot, which I hoped to correct.

Before Stolen Magic, I believed E. L. Doctorow’s advice that “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” E. L. Doctorow wrote a lot of novels, and his advice may work for some, but he led me astray.

Nowadays, I have to have the major kinks figured out before I commit myself to a book, whether it’s a retelling of a fairy tale or an original story. I may write a few pages before then, though, and call a halt to think.

But I’ve never used the inciting incident, rising action, etc. method though I assume my stories have those things. I like to adapt fairy tales or myths because they give me a skeletal plot, or I think they do. Most of them are riddled with logical holes big enough for a dragon to fall through. I have to figure them out before I can get going.

I often find my way by framing my plot as a quest, which, for example, is what pulled me through Two Princesses. I think most stories can be looked at that way. “Hansel and Gretel” can be looked at as a quest for a safe home. Or one to end the witch’s reign of terror. Or something else that we can decide.

To find the quest and our plot in general, we have to decide whose story we’re telling. Take “Snow White,” for example. In the original, the character with the most agency is the evil queen, and her tragic quest, in a way, is to stop time to keep herself from aging and Snow White from growing into her beauty. We have to rearrange things to make it Snow White’s story, which can be a quest for a safe home as it is in my mind for Hansel and Gretel. Or for power. Or for true love. All depending on how we do it.

So when we think about our plot, we need to ask ourselves questions:
• Which character is our MC?
• Who’s telling the story? May be our MC–or not.
• What does our MC want or what caused them to be at risk?
• What are the obstacles and who stands in the way?
• What qualities will help or harm our MC?
• What kind of world is this, because the answer will affect our MC’s ability to act and the sorts of actions that are possible.
• How do we want it to end? What will that look like? How will we get there?

In my case, since I tend to get mixed up, it helps for me to write notes and review and re-review my ideas, because I’m likely to forget about a snag that threatens everything, that will make me have to delete fifty pages–or much more.

Having said all this, though, the fog of writing may be the writer’s curse. Writing Cat Lover may be doing nothing wrong. It may be that, for most of us, if we’re not in some amount of fog, we’re not mining the depths that lurk in our story. A friend told me that Stephen King takes his laptop to sports events and types away, able to write and follow the game at the same time. He must not be an ordinary mortal.

Maybe I’ll be wandering in my fog and bump into you, wandering in yours!

Here are three prompts:

• Write your current WIP as a three-to-five page fairy tale.

• “Before the Law” is a parable within the novel The Trial by surrealist Franz Kafka. It isn’t my kind of thing, but it may be fun to fool around with in terms of plotting. Ask the questions I pose above to write a story that appeals to you. This summary comes from Wikipedia: A man from the country seeks “the law” and wishes to gain entry to it through an open doorway, but the doorkeeper tells the man that he cannot go through at the present time. The man asks if he can ever go through, and the doorkeeper says it is possible “but not now.” The man waits by the door for years, bribing the doorkeeper with everything he has. The doorkeeper accepts the bribes, but tells the man he only accepts them “so that you do not think you have left anything undone.” The man does not attempt to murder or hurt the doorkeeper to gain entry to the law, but waits at the doorway until he is about to die. Right before his death, he asks the doorkeeper why, even though everyone seeks the law, no one else has come in all the years he has been there. The doorkeeper answers, “No one else could ever be admitted here, since this gate was made only for you. I am now going to shut it.”

• In case you don’t have enough fog, here’s more! You may know the Greek myth about Demeter, Hades, and Persephone. Persephone is the daughter of Demeter, the harvest goddess, whom Hades (god of the underworld) falls in love with, abducts, and marries. Demeter, overwhelmed with grief, prevents anything from growing. People starve, but Demeter refuses to relent. Zeus sends Hermes, the messenger god, to get Persephone back. There’s more to the story, because Hades does something sneaky, but this is all you need for the prompt. Hermes is your MC. Write his journey through the land, which Demeter has plunged in darkness, to the murky underworld, to retrieve Persephone.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Revealed or Concealed?

On March 25, 2020, NerdyNiña wrote, 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?

A discussion followed.

Melissa Mead: 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.)

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

Melissa Mead: 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?”)

NerdyNiña: Right, so the details we include should say something about the character’s personality.

Writing Ballerina: 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.

Erica: 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.

Thank you, Writing Ballerina, for remembering my ideas! You got it right about the Pomeranian!

These are great! I agree that a good time to drop in a little character description is when the plot will accommodate it.

I watch very little TV or cable news and rarely see a movie. Most of my information about current events, sports, and celebrities comes via radio, so I don’t know what many super-famous people look like. I make them up. For example, the first time I saw immunologist Anthony Fauci, I was astonished. I expected him to have a long, gaunt face, high cheekbones, and hollowed-out cheeks. Certainly not those stick-out ears. Doesn’t matter. I pictured him without any information.

Readers do that too. Sometimes when I read a description of a character that doesn’t match up with the ideas I’ve already formed, my own impression sticks.

In my historical novel A Ceiling Made of Eggshells, the reader picks up from information here and there that my main character Loma is: short, because everyone in her family is; darker-skinned than the Spanish royals; pretty in a way that’s never described; and plump. That’s all I remember, but I just jumped around in the book to see what I can find, and I found that the reader learns that she has thick eyelashes–on page 165. The reader finds out the color of other characters’ eyes, but not Loma’s.

We don’t need to put much in, unless our plot demands it or a character pays attention to appearance.

But we may have a plot reason. In my “Snow White” retelling, Fairest, MC Aza believes she’s ugly, and a good deal of the plot revolves around that. In narration she describes herself unflatteringly. Here’s a snippet: I resembled a snow maid, with a big sphere of a face and round button eyes. She also describes other people to compare them with herself–mostly to make herself feel bad. This is a case of plot and character-driven describing.

The description doesn’t have to be brought about by the thrust of the story. The cause can be a little plot point. In Sparrows in the Wind (which will come out someday), Paris is one of the characters who causes the Trojan War, and he’s the brother of Cassandra, my MC in the first half of the book. They don’t meet until he’s grown up and she’s a teenager. (It’s a long story, which you may know from the mythology.) He describes Cassandra because he wants there to be a strong sibling resemblance, and that’s how the reader finds out she has a strong chin.

If we’re describing a character’s face, we don’t have to touch on every feature. We can even skip the features entirely and say something about his skin or the giant pimple next to his nose.

We can describe characters in narration, either in the thoughts of our POV character or in the voice of an outside narrator.

And we can do it in dialogue, as in Anne of Green Gables, when Gilbert Blythe whispers piercingly, “Carrots! Carrots!”

There other less common ways too–in a diary; a letter; a newspaper report; even in action (think Pinocchio’s nose, for example).

When it comes to describing a character we see clearly in our minds, we can ask ourselves what we see first, what stands out. Say it’s our character’s mouth, which always looks sad. We can start with the mouth then. Maybe it doesn’t turn down but it’s always flat even when something funny or happy or very sad is happening. That flat mouth seems incapable of showing feeling though feeling is clearly there. Or it’s her posture or her height.

We can ask how her character and personality show in her looks or are hidden by them. Maybe she’s secretive, and her lidded eyes give nothing away. Or he’ll believe any lie, betrayed by his rounded eyebrows.

There are other questions we can consider. How is the character different from or like the people around her? How does he resemble (or not) others in his family? What about them do others respond to, positively or negatively? What physical qualities will help or hinder our character as the plot unfolds?

These kinds of questions are likely to take us to surprises, usually a good thing.

Two pitfalls that I can think of to watch out for: 1. Having a character look in a mirror and describe what they see has been done many times, including by me in The Wish. It’s hard to find a fresh way to do it, but if one pops up in our imagination, we can go for it. 2. Stopping the action for a long description of a character’s appearance, a mini infodump. We can do this too, but we need a good reason. For example, lengthy character descriptions are a frequent feature of detective novels, and readers expect them–and clues and red herrings may be wrapped up in them.

As for physical movement, I think simple is fine, unless there is something extraordinary about the way someone moves. We can think about this too when we’re imagining a character. Their nervous nature can come out in their quick movements or be belied by their languor.

Here are three prompts:

• Write a scene or a story based on this: He could read my thoughts and I couldn’t even interpret his expression. This is why telepaths were hated. Even I hated him.

• Write a contemporary “Rumpelstiltskin” in a modern world in which short beings are the underclass.

• Start your story here: Sleeping Beauty opened her eyes, rubbed them, and stared at the prince.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Sharing the Limelight

On March 25, 2020, Kit Kat Kitty wrote, 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 by 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?

A conversation ensued.

Katie W.: 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.

Melissa Mead says: Sounds like a fascinating premise! Good question! Is the story more about him, or them? What would 2 POVs give you that 1 doesn’t?

Kit Kat Kitty: 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 than 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.

Melissa Mead: “I have a nasty habit of deciding to write from a character’s POV just because I think they’re interesting.” Sounds logical to me!

Kit Kat Kitty: 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.

Melissa Mead: 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.

I agree with Katie W. and Melissa Mead and with Kit Kat Kitty that we write because it’s fun.

Sometimes it isn’t. But we write for the fun times. And some of the fun is in experimentation and the growth that follows.

I’m certainly with Melissa Mead that the story premise is fascinating.

As you probably noticed, this question arrived over a year ago, and Kit Kat Kitty probably finished her story long ago. If you’re reading this, would you let us know how it went?

I’m in favor of experimentation. Timidity puts me to sleep when I’m writing and puts readers to sleep if a timid story manages to get finished.

I’ve written two books from two POVs. The cake in terms of number may be taken by Bat 6, written by National Book Award winner for True Believer (and my friend) Virginia Euwer Wolff, which is told by–count them!–twenty-one first-person narrators. It’s an excellent book and worth reading. Also, you’ll see how she pulled it off.

When we’re thinking about multiple POVs, we need to consider what we’ll gain, and Kit Kat Kitty, in my opinion, makes a good case for trying it. Both characters are children of gods, which affects them differently. The girl adds a complication to the boy’s quest. She reacts one way; he another. There’s a lot to explore in their differences.

My first two-POV book was my Mesopotamian fantasy Ever, which is told in alternating chapters by each POV character, one a mortal girl in the city of Hyte where the people believe in a single god, the other the young god of the winds from the kingdom Akka, where there is a pantheon of gods. The chapters are labeled by who’s telling, so the reader always knows.

It’s a love story, and I don’t think I could have brought the love aspect to life in the sole POV of either of them.

The second is my Trojan War book, Sparrows in the Wind, for which I am waiting (endlessly, according to me) for edits from my editor, who is almost certainly not reading these words. In Sparrows, the first half of the book is told by Cassandra, the seer whose prophecies are never believed. The second half is told nine years later by Rin, an Amazon girl who rides to the aid of Troy with her mom and eleven other Amazon women.

In Sparrows, my initial reason for the two POVs was because Cassandra ages out of childhood while the war continues, so I felt I needed to introduce a fresh girl character. Since this is fantasy, I could have shortened the ten years and stayed with Cassandra, but I wanted to stay as faithful as I could to the established mythology. I didn’t anticipate that the double POV would create a buddy story, and I was happy about that. I’d never written one of those before.

In both stories and in Kit Kat Kitty’s as she’s described it, the POV characters have different backstories and different perspectives, which form their varying responses to events. We can keep that in mind when we consider what we’ll gain from the added complication of more than one first-person narrator.

In Sparrows, for example, Cassandra lives in a society in which women have no freedom. Zero. Except for religious festivals, they rarely even step outside the women’s quarters in their houses. Turned loose in the wild, a Trojan woman wouldn’t last long. On the other hand, an Amazon can fend for herself and better; she lives to hunt, fight, raid villages, and collect spoils. Amazons are contemptuous of so-called “village women” and prefer death to captivity.

Aside from chapter headings in Ever and the passage of time between the two halves in Sparrows, we want readers to always know who’s speaking. In Ever, I tried to make the two voices different. I reasoned that Olus, the god of the winds, would be more educated than a mortal girl, and I tried to give him an advanced vocabulary and to have him think and speak in longer, more complex sentences. I don’t think I succeeded. But when I just opened to pages at random I always knew who was talking. Their history and world view are so different that it affects everything. Besides, since Ever is a love story, each one is usually either speaking to the other or thinking of him or her.

In Sparrows, to differentiate speakers and also for plot reasons, I wrote the first part in the past tense and the second in present. That alone differentiates the two, but also the world views of the two of them have little in common.

These are two strategies for differentiating the POVs. There must be many more. For example, one POV could be told through journal entries, another through live action. One might even be presented in italics.

If we’re working from a traditional tale, like a fairy story, more than one POV will expand its scope and most likely lengthen our page count. We can consider if we want that.

Multiple POVs will also complicate the arc of our story. For pantsers (like me, mostly), that will make the telling more difficult. I would want to come up with a skeletal outline. But this isn’t to say that complete pantsers shouldn’t try it. The pleasure is in the journey!

Here are three prompts:

• Tell “Jack and the Beanstalk” from two POVs, Jack’s and the giant’s. You may have to give the giant a backstory. What were his hopes and dreams when Jack brought him down to earth?

The English version of the tale has this rhyme, which you can read about on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fee-fi-fo-fum. Here’s the rhyme:

Fee-fi-fo-fum,
I smell the blood of an Englishman,
Be he alive, or be he dead
I'll grind his bones to make my bread.[

If you want to use this, you can bring in geopolitics!

• Tell the fable of the hare and the tortoise from three POVs: the hare, the tortoise, and the fox, who judges the race.

• Go wild. Tell the story of a spelling bee from the POVs of the final seven contestants, a sibling of one of them, and the judge.

Have fun, and save what you write!

A Wild Parade

On March 18, 2020, SilverSky wrote, 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 into 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 the 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?

I know you already answered a few questions about details but I thought maybe you could elaborate on using the 5 senses when writing details.

A discussion broke out.

future_famous_author: 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. 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 than you are, and there is really no right way, but that’s just how I feel like it should go. Fewer 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.

Melissa Mead: 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: 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?

Erica: 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: 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.

Christie V Powell: 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.

Melissa Mead: I hope it’s ok to throw this in too. I went to HS with the author. He’s a writer, English teacher, and cartoonist, and he illustrated the book with cartoons: https://www.amazon.com/Teaching-Students-Writing-Visual-Vivid/dp/0545147816

These are terrific! I particularly agree that detail supports both plot and character development.

However, these may be less important in a work of experimental fiction than in other literature. Here’s a link to a Wikipedia article on experimental literature: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Experimental_literature. Writers of experimental fiction may expect more of their readers than other writers do and may not feel the need to create a page-turner. They may believe their readers will make the effort, to be interested in elements other than plot, character, dialogue, and setting–elements, for example, like language and the unexpected.

Such literature is a bit like poetry. Poets expect their readers to linger over a poem, to let it unfold gradually, some poems more gradually than others.

If we’re writing experimental fiction and playing with the five senses, what’s too much or not enough is entirely up to us, and I’d say that in this case more is better. I like the dirt-on-the-tongue example. If we’re exploring taste, for example, we can keep going. The MC tastes the dirt. How does it taste? Salty? Bitter? Chickeny? Does it dissolve or linger? Does it call up memories of other odd tastes? Think of this as Alice following the white rabbit down the hole of the taste of dust. The dust can taste like the color blue. It can make the MC’s tongue swell–or shrink. It can affect her other senses. She can smell in the dirt its history. Readers can be treated to a geology lesson on the origins of the dirt in the last ice age. A woolly mammoth can appear. Enter the other senses, as the MC looks into the small, angry eyes, jumps on the mammoth for a wild ride, feels its coarse hair, aches from the impact as the beast rears, hears its excited squeals.

We can stretch whatever we like. We can report on the vision of the mammoth, which we make up. Its vision is the sense of sight just as ours is. What would it see if it were presented with an eye chart? Our MC can imagine what she looks like to the mammoth.

And so on. Especially in a first draft, I’d suggest writing a lot. Later, we can decide what should stay. For this, I’d suggest choosing the parts we enjoy. The reader can take it or leave it. We shouldn’t judge good and bad for this (or for anything else, as I often say).

We can also go into the sensory ability of our MC, whose senses can be heightened or reduced. In plot terms, the loss of sensation can call forth a crisis, as may its opposite, a painful intensity. That can be the tension or part of it.

I suspect that sensation is a subset of touch. Or maybe it’s another sense. Please weigh in if you have an opinion. I’m thinking of physical pain or a racing heart or the feeling of fever or sneezing or itching, being hot, being chilly. We can delve into those too. Some of these have an emotional side, but the physical is there too. In experimental writing, we can let ourselves run on with sensation.

If we’re not writing experimental fiction, then the amount of detail does matter, mostly when it comes to pacing. Too much detail will slow things down. Two little, and the reader won’t be able to imagine what’s going on and enter into it. Here too, though, I suggest not worrying much in the first draft. Too much is better than too little, because it’s easier to cut than add when we revise. We do want our details to support character development, plot, and setting, as Melissa Mead and future_famous_author suggest.

Also a sense of wonder if we’re writing fantasy–or even experimental fantasy. Wonder can be introduced into any sense: the dirt that tastes like the sky with a teaspoon of honey and smells like peaches; the floorboards that creak out a song; the rat in tap shoes that gives the floorboard’s song a beat; the wall mold that, when a light is lit, depicts a forest scene.

And, as Erica says, we have to make sure that the details are ones that our MC can experience.

Here are three prompts:

• Write a paragraph on the (imagined) taste of dirt. If you can, write a page. Do not taste anything that may harm you! No poisoning for the sake of art!

• From the POV of the woolly mammoth, write its sensations when the human appears. Write at least a page. If you like, turn it into a story.

• Your MC is in on her way to meet a friend for an important reason–you decide why. On the way, by whatever means of transportation you choose, her sensations go haywire: intensify, fade, play tricks. Despite what’s happening to her, she needs to reach her destination. Write the scene.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Better Free, Say I

On March 15, 2020, Raina wrote, 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.

Two of you weighed in.

Melissa Mead: 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.

Katie W.: 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.

Melissa Mead (to Katie W.): 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 am absolutely with Melissa Mead (and Jane Yolen) about stories belonging to readers once the stories are out with readers. If someone jumps to the wrong conclusion about something we intended, their mistaken leap doesn’t encumber us at all. Someday the writer may be interviewed about her writing and be asked if any of it is autobiographical. Then she can set the record straight forever, or she can say, mysteriously, that she leaves the matter to readers to decide!

Raina, my strongest response is that you should write what you want and tell it as well as you can. Period.

End of post.

That was a joke.

Several years ago I taught an undergraduate course in creative writing at a university. One of my students thought in stereotypes, which revealed themselves in his writing and even when he talked. He was blithely unaware of the offensiveness of some of what he said and wrote, even though other students were offended and said so. It got a little sad when he didn’t understand why he wasn’t well liked. I don’t think he meant ill; he was just so un-self-reflective that he couldn’t assimilate the feedback.

Most of us–the vast majority in general and here on the blog–are unlike him. We know that other people have feelings and perspectives that are different from ours. We don’t want to hurt anyone. I don’t think we should worry much when we write or speak. If we get it wrong, we’ll be corrected and we’ll learn. That’s good.

The stakes do get higher when we’re writing for publication, but we can show our work to beta readers and ask them to focus on the areas that worry us. If a literary agent is interested in our work, she’ll point out any problem areas. Our editor will too. Mine alerted me to sensitivity around the word invalid for a person with a long-lasting illness, because the spelling is the same as for the invalid that means not valid and is pronounced differently. I was surprised, but I found another word. And I learned something.

Another thing about publishing: Timid writing doesn’t stand up well, in my opinion. If publication is our goal, we should take a stand and write boldly.

Here’s a confession: I read reader reviews on Goodreads. Not everyone likes my books. For example, some readers (many!) are grossed out by Ogre Enchanted (which I’m reading on Facebook at the moment, if you’re interested. Reading my books there is my effort to provide comfort during the pandemic. You can find my page by typing in my name.) Okay. My sense of humor is pretty broad, excepting only meanness and stereotypes, but some people don’t go for it. They have that right. My editor was untroubled, so I felt I had license to be a little outrageous. Readers have a right to dislike any or all of my books, and I have a right not to be too concerned as long as I wrote the best book I could.

If we don’t experiment, we rob ourselves of some of the greatest values of writing: the opportunity to explore, to find out about ourselves, to discover what we can do, to see what surprising ideas we can come up with. We need freedom for that. We don’t get freedom by self-censoring.

Of course we can research an issue we’re not sure how to address. Say we want our character to go mad, for example, we can research mental illness, which is a very big field, but we can narrow it down. We can read memoirs by people who suffered from the kind of mental illness that interests us. Memoirs will give us an inside look.

Naturally, people who suffer from depression, for instance, don’t experiences it identically. It may be worthwhile to read the voices of at least two people who’ve been depressed and then use our imaginations to invent our own character with this illness. This does not mean that our depressed character has to be good. She can be our villain. The depression can be part of her evil or aside from it.

My historical novel, A Ceiling Made of Eggshells, as you may remember, is told from the POV of a Jewish girl in late medieval Spain. I’m Jewish but I don’t represent all Jews, and I certainly don’t represent medieval Jews. I’m not religious, and I didn’t have much of a religious education. The experience of a more orthodox Jew would be very different from mine. Mostly, I relied on my research.

In children’s literature, there’s a move toward “own voices,” the telling of stories about marginalized communities by members of the communities. Following “own voices,” a writer wouldn’t write from the POV of, say, a Vietnamese-American unless she herself was a member of that group. Here are two interesting and thoughtful links that discuss this: https://www.hbook.com/?detailStory=christopher-myers-talks-with-roger and https://mgbookvillage.org/2019/08/09/the-struggle-between-diversity-and-ownvoices/.

If we’re not writing for publication, though, we can write in any voice. We can read about the war in Vietnam and imagine ourselves a Vietnamese child during the war. Without doing a very lot of research–not only about the war but also about customs, religion, daily life, etc. in Vietnam–we’ll certainly get it wrong. Even with the research, we’re likely to get some of it wrong, but the effort will be a wonderful exercise of sympathy in our development as a writer, and we can move some of what we learned into other stories, maybe as the basis for fantasy.

I hope the message of this post is a shout for freedom. Please write what you’re drawn to, which, more than anything else, will make your writing authentic. We can’t control what other people think, so let them think it.

Here are three prompts:

• Write a version of “Hansel and Gretel” in several voices: the witch, the mother or father who wants to lose the children, Gretel who thinks Hansel is a pest, and Hansel who craves independence. You can try this more than one way, changing which characters are sympathetic (or maybe none are).

• At a national debate your MC draws a very unpopular position to argue, a position she disagrees with: say, euthanasia for dogs who growl more than once at strangers, or, more seriously, the death penalty for children who commit certain crimes. Or a topic you choose. She argues so well she wins the debate and finds herself despised by the people she cares about and hated on social media. Write the story.

• Read Hamlet or a synopsis. Write a modern-day version, in prose or verse. Hamlet not only seeks truth but also right action once he discovers that his mother and his uncle really did murder his father.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Worldbuild Minus Infodump Equals Fantasterrific!

On March 15, 2020, Myra S. wrote, How do you find ways to worldbuild without infodumping?

Several of you had ideas.

Erica: What I’ve done in my poor, neglected WIP is to get the plot started 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: 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.

Melissa Mead: Here’s a handy resource: http://www.pcwrede.com/fantasy-worldbuilding-questions/

Christie V Powell: I’ve enjoyed watching Brandon Sanderson’s lectures on the subject. He has two recent ones on worldbuilding, and covers this topic. Here’s the first one: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ATNvOk5rIJA&list=PLSH_xM-KC3Zv-79sVZTTj-YA6IAqh8qeQ&index=5

Raina: I think two aspects of worldbuilding are 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 fewer people would be able to explain in detail how 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 some 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.

These are great!

As you know, my next book, Sparrows in the Wind, is about the Trojan War, which figures in Greek mythology, although some parts of the myth may have really happened, as archaeological discoveries suggest.

When I was around nine or ten, I read Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes, which, though it was first published in 1942, is still selling briskly. I loved it and and reread it many times. When I started writing Sparrows in the Wind, I assumed that almost everybody knew the story of the Trojan War, just as most people know the fairy tale “Cinderella.” I didn’t think I’d have to do much world building.

Wrong, alas.

I asked my friend, the terrific kids’ book writer Karen Romano Young, to read the first eighty pages. She was bewildered.

When I explained the mythology, her eyes rolled back in her head and her mouth fell open. Until then, I hadn’t realized how complicated it all is, beginning with a banquet on Mount Olympus with the gods, a golden apple, and the goddess of discord.

I went back to page one and explained everything and finally finished the novel. I sent it to my editor, who wrote to me in her editorial letter that I had created an infodump (the first time I’d ever been told this in all the worlds I’ve made up), and the mythology still wasn’t clear, and she had to supplement her reading of my story with her own research.

Not what I’d hoped for.

So I started again, again.

This goes to Raina’s “when to share it,” which I had never had to think about before: My MC in the first half of my book is Cassandra of Troy, a minor figure in the myth, who is given the gift of seeing the future by the god Apollo. Then, after she won’t do what he wants, he curses his gift by making no one believe her.

When she receives the gift, in my unrevised telling, she knows immediately all the terrible things that will happen to Troy and the people she loves, and I pass the details on to the reader–the infodump.

Not telling everything at once seemed to me like tricking the reader, which, when another author does it, prompts two reactions in me: I think it’s fun but obvious–the story machinery is showing. But I did some of it anyway, in that I allow Cassandra to know more than her thoughts and dialogue tell the reader.

What I wound up doing mostly, though, was to have Cassandra herself see only one terrible event the first time the future is poured into her. The second time she looks, she stops the internal movie when the tragedy becomes too great for her to tolerate. The infodump goes away. Knowledge is revealed in digestible bites.

So that’s one strategy: find ways to break up the revelations into small morsels.

My favorite way is to introduce the world as our MC or another character comes upon it. Cassandra doesn’t know the future when my book opens, so it’s as new to her as it is to the reader. That’s handy, but it can’t always be that way.

My book begins twenty pages before Cassandra receives the future. She’s already in her world, which she knows and the reader doesn’t. How do we show it?

A little at a time, but quickly. The book starts with Cassandra awakening at dawn. She stretches lazily in bed (so there are beds) and leaps up, remembering that this is the day she will be kanephoros for the city of Troy.

What’s a kanephoros? She tells the reader in her worried thoughts. Being kanephoros is an honor, but it’s risky. She has to lead a procession in a festival for Apollo while carrying on her head (hands free!) a heavy basket of offerings for the god. If the basket falls off, the whole city will suffer. The reader frowns. Everybody makes mistakes! These gods aren’t very understanding.

For those who don’t know anything about Apollo, Cassandra tells the reader about him in her thoughts–that he’s her favorite god and why.

So thoughts and a POV character’s narration is a natural way to show our world.

Let’s consider the fairy tale “Puss in Boots.” Here’s the beginning from Andrew Lang’s Blue Fairy Book:

There was a miller who left no more estate to the three sons he had than his mill, his ass, and his cat. The partition was soon made. Neither scrivener nor attorney was sent for. They would soon have eaten up all the poor patrimony. The eldest had the mill, the second the ass, and the youngest nothing but the cat. The poor young fellow was quite comfortless at having so poor a lot.

“My brothers,” said he, “may get their living handsomely enough by joining their stocks together; but for my part, when I have eaten up my cat, and made me a muff of his skin, I must die of hunger.”

The Cat, who heard all this, but made as if he did not, said to him with a grave and serious air:

“Do not thus afflict yourself, my good master.

And so on. Here’s a link to the rest of the story, which is in the public domain: https://www.worldoftales.com/fairy_tales/Andrew_Lang_fairy_books/Blue_fairy_book/The_Master_Cat_or,_Puss_in_Boots.html#gsc.tab=0.

The world building doesn’t begin in this excerpt until the third paragraph. When the cat is first introduced, there’s no hint that he’s anything extraordinary. I think we accept the abrupt shift because we know this is a fairy tale, and the story is mostly told rather than shown.

But if we were writing a novelized version, we’d have to prepare the reader. The first time the cat is mentioned, we’d want to drop something in that suggests he’s more than the usual feline.

If the youngest son is our MC, he can think of his dead father and the cat and of hints his father dropped. Our MC can talk to the cat as people talk to animals without expecting an answer in words. The cat can answer.

But let’s say our MC is Puss himself since he carries most of the action. Then the reader will know instantly that this is a world of super-smart cats. We’ll probably have to reveal quickly whether the second son’s donkey is super-smart too. We can bring this out in Puss’s thoughts or in something he does.

We never have to explain why cats are so smart unless that reason is essential to our plot. We establish it. This is the way things are. Brilliant cats.

That’s another strategy. We don’t need the history of the ways our story world differs from the reader’s–unless the history figures in our plot. We don’t build any more world than we need.

The reader will accept the world we’ve laid out, even if it’s wildly improbable (think Terry Pratchett’s Discworld carried on giant elephants and a giant turtle), especially if we bring it on early. Pratchett describes his world as soon as the reader opens a book. So that’s another strategy: Pile on the surprises while readers are still settling into their chairs.

In “Puss in Boots,” the reader learns that the story is unfolding in a monarchy. This comes up suddenly when the cat brings a rabbit to the king, so we probably want to alert the reader beforehand that there is a king and also that he has a daughter. How much introduction the two of them need depends on our plot. We don’t have to go into the details of the monarchy unless the plot calls for it. For example, the reader doesn’t have to know if there’s an assembly and how the members are appointed and how much power they have or how wealthy or impoverished the king’s subjects are. Unnecessary details may lead to the info dump. And we should keep in mind that readers of fantasy have a lot to keep track of. We don’t want them to sink under the weight of it all.

If you love worldbuilding, you can figure it all out and write down every bit. If your plot isn’t set, you can examine what you’ve come up with to find spots you can exploit to make trouble for your MC. Once you start the story itself, you’ll drop the details in gradually, but only the ones your story needs.

Here are three prompts:

• In “Puss in Boots,” when the king and his daughter go on an outing in their carriage, Puss contrives to have his master taken inside with them. Then Puss runs ahead of the carriage and tells the peasants this from Lang: “Good people, you who are reaping, if you do not tell the King that all this corn belongs to the Marquis of Carabas, you shall be chopped as small as herbs for the pot.” The good people believe him! Write a scene that makes his threat believable, or write an entire story that leads up to the threat.

• Not much later, Puss comes to a castle owned by an ogre, and this is the first the reader learns that ogres exist in this world. Write an earlier scene that introduces the ogre.

• Andrew Lang (1844-1912) is best known for his collections of folk and fairy tales. Imagine that he brings his “Puss in Boots” as I’ve quoted it here to a workshop for a critique. Write the scene, imagining who might be in the workshop and inventing your own Andrew Lang as a character, rather than the historical figure. (For this, I recommend reading the whole story–which is short.)

Have fun, and save what you write!

Writers Bravely Go

On March 12, 2020, Kit Kat Kitty wrote, 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 haven’t 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’m just worried because that seems to be a mental block for me whenever I have an idea. I always tell myself if I haven’t experienced it (or something very close) I can’t write about it.

A few of you weighed in.

Melissa Mead: I’d say go ahead and try! Even if you get it wrong at first, you’ll get better with practice + experience.

future_famous_author: 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!

Christie V Powell: 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 move. If meeting in person doesn’t work, try social media, or even reading a memoir or article they’ve written.

My goodness! It’s almost a whole year since you, Kit Kat Kitty, asked your question, and you may have fallen in love three or more times since then!

future famous author, you’re right. I have never looked at someone’s earlobe and wanted to eat it! More seriously, I haven’t been in the terrible circumstances I thrust my characters into. I don’t know how I’d react.

And I’m with Christie V Powell that humans are amazing in our willingness to merge with imaginary beings of all sorts. And writers are an amazing-plus subset of humanity, gifted with the power to create the characters that readers can inhabit.

On a whim, I just googled “How does it feel to fall in love?” and many articles and entries popped up, which you and other writers may find helpful. (I haven’t clicked on them.)

I’m revising my Trojan War book for my editor, which means that the heaviest lifting is done and I’m thinking about my next project, which will probably be a take on another fairy tale. In the way I’m approaching this fairy tale, one of the main characters is super selfish, bordering, in my opinion, on narcissism. I don’t think I’m much of a narcissist myself, and, luckily, I haven’t known anyone else I’d peg that way. But that isn’t a reason not to write this character!

So I did a lot of googling on narcissism, especially on how to stop being narcissistic, which seems to be very difficult. Fascinating! I don’t know how much I’ll use, but what I read gave me a better idea about how to approach the character and how to move him through my plot.

I research constantly, even for fantasy. I’ve fallen in love, but I may go back and read my Google entries on the topic. Research helps me feel grounded and stokes my imagination because the real world is full of surprises. The way I fall in love is probably different from the way other people do, and my characters all have their own ways.

As Christie V Powell suggests, we can ask real people about what falling in love was like for them. We can ask people who seem to be happy together and (tactfully) people who seem anything but. How did it start? Slow or fast? What did they think and feel? What was the physical reaction? Chills? Heat? Trembling? Tingling? I bet everyone will have a different story.

Let’s linger on that. Won’t a shy person and an exuberant person fall in love differently? Writers on the blog often talk about backstory. Won’t people’s backstories affect how they fall in love? We can’t have all the experiences our characters have. We have to make it up. No other option.

And, just saying, if my characters could come to life, I’m certain they’d tell me I got things wrong. The nice ones would thank me for trying. I don’t know what the villains would do!

I agree with Kit Kat Kitty that we expand from what we do know to what we don’t. We know about forming friendships, about liking and even loving friends, about being loved. I’ve never been hungry for an earlobe, but when I’m ravenous, the sight of a raw chicken about to go into the oven can be almost unbearable.

As for offending people, I’d say no one has the right to be offended. You’re not writing about them. They’re not experts in how your characters fall in love! You and your characters are the only experts.

Here are four prompts:

• A thousand-year-old elf falls in love with a nine-hundred-year-old dragon. Write their meeting and how the love develops.

• The roots of two trees come together deliberately in an embrace. Write how that happens.

• A shy person and an exuberant person do fall in love. Write their first meeting. Continue with the progression of their romance.

• After Snow White wakes up, she goes with the prince to his castle where they get married though they don’t know each other at all. Using the original Grimm story, write your version and make the romance real. Remember that she has quite a backstory.

Have fun, and save what you write!