Flowering in the Great Plot Dessert

On September 9, 2021, Brambles and Bees wrote, Does anyone have any recommendations on how to get ideas for plot and how to cultivate them until they grow into a fully formed story ready to write? I am currently struggling with re-planning because I didn’t find the plot I had given the story I’m working on interesting or detailed enough for my liking. The problem now is that I can’t seem to think of any ideas for the story. I have vague ideas for very random scenes in the story that I might not end up writing, but nothing is giving me inspiration.

A few of you had ideas.

Melissa Mead: That’s kinda how I work, actually. I just go ahead and write the random scenes, and they lead to more scenes. Usually. I hope.

Kit Kat Kitty: That’s something I struggle with too. In my current story, I’ve written two short chapters with the information about the characters and plot that I know. It’s helping me come up with things and understand them, so I can come up with a plot.

I also found something that helps is making lists, (something I actually started doing because of this blog) with the example I gave before, I have a list of about seventeen different ideas, and after writing the first few chapters (all of the ideas were rooted in the same concept more or less) there are probably fourteen ideas I can choose from, and a couple I’m leaning towards. This is helpful for me, knowing that I have options, and I feel like I have a sense of direction and what I’m writing isn’t pointless.

Christie V Powell: Resident plotter here!

The first thing I do is brainstorm a few ideas and get everything that came with the original idea written down. Then I write down a list of the major parts of the story (key event, first plot point, etc). There’s a graphic on this blog point that lists some different systems for naming those parts–mine is the “CVP method”.

http://atypicallyordinary.blogspot.com/2021/06/plot-structure-systems.html

Anyway, then I start breaking up the ideas from my brainstorm and figuring where they might go in the story. From there, it’s a little easier to figure out what goes in the gap.

For instance, the last story I outlined (a gender-flipped Sleeping Beauty) came with a list of conflicts (my princess vs. the villain, princess vs. her parents who don’t know about her forbidden abilities, and princess needing to find her best friend). So fitting them into the story structure framework helped me figure out what steps I needed to take to resolve each of those conflicts. For another story I’m working on, I had the beginning crystal clear in my mind and a vague idea of the rest of the story. So filling in the framework helped me figure out where the middle and end might go.

Kit Kat Kitty, I’m glad lists—which I push whenever I see the chance—have been helpful!

I think the only book I ever started that didn’t have some sort of borrowed structure was The Wish, and I wrote it over twenty years ago. (I started The Two Princesses of Bamarre with “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” in mind, but the fairy tale disintegrated as I started writing.) For The Wish, all I knew was that I wanted to write a book about popularity—about an unpopular girl who wanted more than anything else to be popular. Alas, I no longer have my notes, so I can’t reconstruct my process. I know that, early on, I decided she would become popular by having her wish granted by a witch, who comes into the story only once or twice after the initial gift.

The granting comes with an expiration date. Wilma wishes to be the most popular in her middle school, without remembering that she’s going to graduate in three weeks.

So the granting of the wish brings problems with it that my story has to grapple with in the middle. Wilma doesn’t think of her impending graduation for a while. First, she has to handle her popularity and become the kind of popular girl she’s going to be. Is that mean, as some of the popular kids used to be to her? Will she take revenge?

Then, when she does realize, what does she do?

The thing is that what-I-think-is-called the initiating incident (becoming popular) is bundled with problems for our plot. When we think about them, we think about scenes we can create to make them better, as when Wilma has a great conversation with extremely popular Ardis, and to make them worse, as when she brings her dog to a sleepover (and he pees at a bad moment in a bad place–on a sculpture).

Also locked up in the initiating incident is a seed for our ending. Will Wilma be popular after graduation? We have to decide if we’re writing a tragedy: Wilma is not popular, is not reconciled to being unpopular, and regrets the loss for years. Or an adventure or comedy: Wilma remains popular, or she wins a sense of proportion about popularity and has gained a stronger sense of self-respect.

We create scenes to bring her to the ending we want to give her.

I find a borrowed structure easier because the template suggests scenes as well as the problem and, sometimes, even the ending.

Let’s take “Rumpelstiltskin” as an example, which I go to often because I’d like to figure out all the kinks and write it.

The inciting incident, I think, is the miller telling the king that his daughter can weave straw into gold when he has no reason to believe this is true. The incident suggests scenes: in the throne room with the father, the king, and the terrified girl; the girl in the barn, dwarfed by mounds of hay, standing next to a rickety spinning wheel; the appearance of Rumpelstiltskin; etc.

The problem, I think, is the girl’s survival, and, if she lives, can she thrive?

Here again, we decide what kind of ending we want. Sad is easily achieved. In the fairy tale, she lives and saves her baby too, but what kind of life does she have, married to a man who was willing to off her? For adventure or comedy, we have to figure out a way for her to thrive.

We need scenes for this too. What’s the miller’s daughter’s daily life like? How does she approach her future? What does she think? Feel? Does Rumpelstiltskin stay on the scene after she guesses his name? What’s the deal with him—why is he in the story at all? All of these suggest scenes.

Sometimes, when I’m floundering, I reframe my story as a quest. That was the way I managed to write The Two Princesses of Bamarre out of the sea of mud it was stuck in. In this case, the miller’s daughter, whether she knows it or not, may be on a quest for happiness or for a good life for her baby.

Another way to plot is with a timeline. We have the initial problem and a deadline. If the problem isn’t solved by then, we have a tragedy. We create subordinate deadlines along the way. We fill in with scenes to reach them or fail to reach them. When I wrote my historical novel, A Ceiling Made of Eggshells, I used a timeline of actual events leading up to the expulsion of the Jews (in 1492) and, finally, the exodus from Spain.

But we don’t need historical events to do this. Story events will do. For example, our MC, Aggie, has to reach her widowed mother on the other side of the world, in time to prevent her from marrying Mr. Weaselham, whose villainy has been revealed to Aggie but not to her mother. We think of what can get in the way. We set up a timeline. We’re off!

So here you have a semi-pantser’s approach to plot. Brambles & Bees, how did it go for you?

Here are three prompts:

  • Write your own adaptation of “Rumpelstiltskin.” If it’s helpful, follow the method I suggest above.
  • Using a timeline, write the story of Aggie, Aggie’s deceived mother, and Mr. Weaselham.
  • In a world that’s something like the American West after the transcontinental railroad has just begun running, outlaws attack Aggie’s train and derail it in an inhospitable landscape. Write what happens. You can figure out a way for her to continue her journey, or you can turn it in a new direction.

Have fun and save what you write!

Supercolliders

On July 27, 2021, i  writing wrote, Quick question about clichés—or one in particular—the MC of my middle-grade novel meets her love interest by literally crashing into him. They both fall over, she gets a look at him, stammers her way through an apology, and walks off in a pleasantly surprised daze. Is this a super-cliche way for two love interests to meet?

Christie V Powell answered with this: It’s certainly a well used trope, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s clichéd. You can find a way to use it, especially if you play with it a bit.

This is TVTropes’ page for “Playing with Crash Into Hello”, which defines different ways that the trope could be used: https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/PlayingWith/CrashIntoHello.

I love Christie V Powell’s link. My fav is the wallet one.

And I agree with her all the way. Whether a trope will be tired or not depends on the way it’s handled. Here’s a super early prompt: Read the ones on the link and then list five other ways to fool with the collision-meets-cute romcom starter.

One way we can use a trope—any trope—in a way that will boost its originality and lower its profile is to make it do more than one thing in our story.

Character development: Matt bumps into Sara. She apologizes. He says, “Whatever.” With great economy, we’ve revealed a bit of the characters of each of them. Our plot gets a boost too, because, if these two are going to fall for each other, we sure have a story arc to think about.

To develop our characters, we consider what we want this encounter to reveal about them. How can we make the crash show them at their best, their worst, or their most typical?

To develop our plot: Sara is a werewolf whose shifts are set off by the unexpected. When Matt bumps into her, she begins to transform.

Here, we use the meet-cute to reveal what we know about our story.

To develop our setting: Matt has been wandering through the minotaur’s labyrinth for days. Sound travels weirdly in here. Several times, the minotaur has almost been upon him before he heard its booming steps. Now, he thinks he hears lighter—human?—footfalls, but where? Oof!

Here, in the lead-up to the collision, the reader learns about the quality of sound in the labyrinth.

This is fun!

In each of these, readers may not even notice that this is a meet-cute-by-collision device at all.

But if I ask myself whether it’s best to avoid tropes entirely so we don’t need to think of workarounds to make them original, I’m not sure. The whole meet-cute thing is a trope too, but how many romances start by two people reading Kierkegaard in a Philosophy class? (As you may have read somewhere because it’s a good (true) story, David and I had a cute—sort of—moment when he set his hair on fire during our first date.)

Tropes become tropes by being repeated, and they’re repeated because they’re good. They may even go back to a primordial story shape that satisfies humans like nothing else. We complicate them to bring in originality, and the complications are part of the plot process. A story arc could even be described as a pattern of rising complexity—up, up, up—‘til we reach the crisis, and then lowering—down, down, down—until what’s left comes into sharp focus in the resolution. I don’t know if we can avoid tropes—so why worry?

However, if we want to try, we can start to think, as we should anyway, about the characters of the two. What’s going on in their lives? What are the conflicts, the trajectory of the story they’re already on that romance hasn’t yet entered?

Let’s suppose that Sara joined the debate team at her high school in hopes of reducing her terror at public speaking. Matt uses the auditorium to study because his friends don’t go there, and he can tune out whatever is going on onstage. He’s not doing well in his European History class because he can’t keep straight all the little countries and the wars and the dates.

To Sara, Matt is just there during her debate practice, a helpful presence because she can see he’s oblivious to whatever she says and how badly she says it. He’s not aware of her at all. His family is very invested in his education. An F will put a serious dent in their hopes for him and his hopes for himself. Both run in different crowds, and their friendships bring in other conflict that are part of the story. The reader cares about the two characters but doesn’t see a connection between them, which when it comes, is gradual. They stand next to each other in the cafeteria line in a moment when their friends aren’t around. Matt, who isn’t comfortable with silence, tells her he likes the pea soup. She nods. And so on. Their brief contacts are always pleasant. When he flunks his History midterm, he sees her at the school lockers and says something, just because she seems nice. That’s the meet-not-especially-cute, but it grows from there.

A great example of no trope at all is in Jane Austen’s Emma, because the eponymous heroine has known the future love interest her whole life. There is no meeting.

Here are four prompts based on the scenarios above, plus one that isn’t:

  • Matt bumps into Sara. She apologizes. He says, “Whatever.” Write the scene that follows and the whole romance, if you like.
  • Write this one: Sara is a werewolf whose shifts are set off by the unexpected. When Matt bumps into her, she begins to transform.
  • And/or this one: Matt has been wandering through the minotaur’s labyrinth for days. Sound travels weirdly in here. Several times, the minotaur has almost been upon him before he heard its booming steps. Now, he thinks he hears lighter—human?—footfalls, but where? Oof!
  • Or the non-trope one of the debate-anxious Sara and the history-challenged Matt.
  • Your MC meets the villain of your story by colliding with her. Write the scene. If you like, continue to write the whole tale.

Have fun, and save what you write!

By Me, You’re a Writer

I haven’t preceded the post with anything in a while, and I hope you haven’t minded. But here’s a little language and publishing tidbit that might interest the word nerds among us (everybody, I believe). I just finished going through the copy edits on Sparrows in the Wind, my next novel for kids, which is a reimagining of the Trojan War. The managing editor queried whether Achilles’, as I had it, should be Achilles’s and cited a section in The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS), most publishers’ authority. I don’t like Achilles’s, which sounds weird and ugly to me, and I found this link to the CMOS blog: https://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/qanda/data/faq/topics/PossessivesandAttributives/faq0057.html. Read if you’re interested. I’m going with Achilles’ as I had it, because if it’s Achilles’ heel, how can it be Achilles’s elbow? (My editor is with me on this.)

On August 28, 2020 Jen wrote, How do you deal with ‘Impostor Syndrome’? I have been told my writing is good and there are days I agree that it has promise, but then there are days when I panic and freak out that all my plots and characters are boring and cliche and that my word choices are nowhere near as good as I’d like them to be. I understand all of that can be fixed in editing, but even as I edit I still have those panic flare-ups of not being good enough. I’d appreciate all the tips anyone would like to offer.

Melissa Mead wrote back, FWIW, I’ve known pros who’ve won awards + published multiple books and still feel like this. All we can do is write the best we can at the time.

I find it helps to just finish a rough draft, then put it away for a week or so.

There’s an old Jewish joke, which I read in the charming Joys of Yiddish by Leo Rosten, that I think epitomizes the impostor syndrome. I don’t remember it exactly, but here’s the gist: A young man announces to his mother that he’s become a doctor. She smiles proudly and also shrugs. “Darling,” she says, “by you, you’re a doctor; by me, you’re a doctor; but by a doctor, are you a doctor?”

My children’s book writing apprenticeship was so long (nine years) that by the time I achieved publication, I felt like a writer. But when I went to graduate school for an MFA in poetry in 2013, I heard the joke, which is a little bit poisonous, over and over in my head. “But by a poet…” I still think it.

I don’t know the cure, but I know the medicine: Keep writing.

More medicine: Dress up as Emily Bronte or pencil in a ragged moustache to look like Edgar Allan Poe, so you are impersonating a writer—and write.

And more: Read about other writers, or read books on writing, like Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. Learn from them, as I think you will, that uncertainty and self-doubt are our lot (many of us anyway, me anyway). I find this comforting.

I’ve said here before that I try not to ask myself if what I’m writing is good. I try not to ask the question at every stage of the process, from thinking about what I might write all the way to post-publication. And I pay attention to words that are in the judgment category along with good, words like mediocre word choice, boring, cliché.

And not good enough for whom, if I may ask?

I don’t succeed all the time, because the self-attack disguises itself. My latest worry seems to be: Who will read this? Which could be a real question in early planning stages, I guess, but once I get started, it’s unhelpful—

Because I can’t use it or any self-attack. Self-attack isn’t specific. It doesn’t help me see that Marla in the second chapter wouldn’t tell her best friend that she gave away a secret he shared with her. Or that my description of the best friend’s house could be reworked so it reveals something about his character.

Let’s look at mediocre word choice. That’s what a thesaurus is for! If we see a word that we think doesn’t nail what we have in mind, we go to Roget or Thesaurus.com. If we’re me and we’re not satisfied right away, we noodle around, look at more than the first page of options, click on a few possibilities to see where they take us.

Writers need criticism from ourselves and from peers—I do! But we need specifics about things like pacing, character consistency, and, yes sometimes, word choice. We don’t need attack. And we must learn to tell one from the other, especially when the wounds are self-inflicted. We have to police our thoughts!

I’m also not crazy about global compliments from friends and other writers. Good, just like bad, isn’t specific. This kind of praise gives me a sugar high, and after it wears off, I start worrying. Will I continue to please this person? What did I do that was so fabulous? Will I ever be able to do it again? On the other hand, specific praise, for a page of dialogue or a description of a landscape, is nutritious. I’m never going to have to do precisely that again, so I won’t disappoint, and, yeah, I’m glad my discerning friend noticed. Yum!

Here are three prompts:

  • Here’s a question that has plagued fairy tale fans for centuries: What is the real form of the evil queen in “Snow White”? Is she really “fairest in the land” before Snow gets old enough to take her superlative? Write a scene from her origin story.
  • Sticking with the same tale, if the evil queen is really beautiful, why does she keep doubting herself and checking with the mirror? Write a different origin story, this one about the source of her impostor syndrome.
  • Dr. Jekyll has been turning into Mr. Hyde for a while, and he’s starting to wonder which one is his true self. Write two scenes, one when he’s Dr. Jekyll considering the question, and one as Mr. Hyde doing the same—while harming someone in a grisly way.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Creative Voice Meld

On June 22, 2020, Katie W. wrote: How do you combine your writing voice with someone else’s? My grandmother left around fifteen notebooks of information for a novel, and I really want to finish it, but I’m worried about keeping it true to her while, at the same time, keeping it true to my own writing. Essentially, what I’m wondering is how do you finish something someone else started?

I love this question!

Since it came in more than a year ago–Katie W., where are you in the project?

And I’m so sorry you lost your grandmother!

In one of my favorite classes in poetry school, we had to read a poetry collection every week and write an analysis and an imitation poem. One of the poets we read was Matthea Harvey, whose work is only for adults. The collection I read is ironic and tragic.

When I wrote my imitation poem, I felt like she took up residence in my brain and I was just taking dictation. But that mind meld I felt didn’t happen automatically (and Harvey herself might not think I had imitated her at all). I read her poems exceedingly closely. Her lines are long. She uses punctuation rarely, and the reader has to figure out what’s going on when the end of one unpunctuated sentence becomes the beginning of the next. She loves alliteration and detail and images. There are surreal surprises.

I did the same analysis of the work of the other assigned poets and felt that I always caught something of their work, but never as close as I thought I came with Harvey.

Katie W. Says she has “information” rather than manuscript pages. When I write notes, I don’t craft my sentences. I leave them as they come out, plop! Anyone hoping to imitate my fiction voice wouldn’t find my notes useful. So, to study notebooks of information for writing voice may not work. But maybe Katie W. has some fiction-writing of her grandmother’s or even letters or emails that she spent time drafting. The point is to concentrate on whatever reflects the voice of the writer we want to merge with.

We look at sentence length. Are the sentences short, long, or varied? Same for paragraphs. Word choice: many syllables or one-to-two? Is her writing direct, or does she circle around? Serious or funny? Easy to understand, or does she make the reader work? If we’re looking at fiction, is there much dialogue? Description? Detail? Images? Sounds? Smells? What’s the ratio between showing and telling?

Then we can try a paragraph, assess, revise. We can take something that is to happen in the novel and write a little bit of it as a scene, consider it, revise. Once we’ve analyzed our model’s writing, we know how to approach the revision.

Obviously, I don’t know Katie W.’s grandmother, and you probably know I have no children. But I’m old enough to be a grandmother, or even a great-grandmother. I like the idea of a grandchild picking up a beginning of mine or an idea and running with it. This is all speculative of course, but I’d want the grandchild, grown up or not, to enjoy themself and not be worried about whether or not I would approve. This is how I feel about my prompts on the blog–have fun, and save what you write. I also am perfectly happy if people change the prompts to suit what they want to write.

On the other hand, wanting to honor a memory is worthy. If we want to, we can do that.

When the Disney Press asked me to write a book (which became three books) in the world of the fairies of Peter Pan by James M. Barrie, I wanted to respect the original, which was one of my favorite books when I was little.

I found the imitation astonishingly hard, really impossible. Barrie is a such a supple writer! He can start a sentence heading west, twist it a quarter turn, twist again, until it’s facing northeast. I couldn’t figure out how he did it! Take a look for yourself, now that the book has entered the public domain: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/16/16-h/16-h.htm. If you’ve never read the novel, you’re in for a treat–except for the dated parts, some of which are cringe-worthy, like his treatment of native Americans.

I noticed that he uses of course often, so I tossed in the phrase with abandon, the least I could do, and it seems to have become habit now. I kept features of Neverland as much as I could, and preserved the personalities of Peter himself and Captain Hook whenever they appeared.

But I also made artistic choices. Barrie uses direct address, meaning he speaks to the reader, and I didn’t want that, so I didn’t–or I don’t remember doing it.

We can decide what our priority is too, which may be honoring a beloved grandmother even if the best story isn’t the result. We can write more than one story, too, one true to the original and one striking out on our own. If family members are interested in the project, one version can be for them and another for a wider readership.

One more thing, which I think I’ve said here before: Imitation is an exceedingly valuable skill for a writer. To do it well, we have to take apart someone else’s work, put it back together, examine it under high magnification, turn it this way and that in the light, back away, come in close again. We’ll wind up with more tools and a bigger range. We are much richer writers in the end.

Here are three prompts. If you’re so disposed, post what you come up with:

• Here’s a little bit of prose from Shakespeare, Hamlet speaking. Imitate Shakespeare! Write about something that depressed you or about a stomachache. See if you can catch his style:

I have of late—but wherefore I know not—lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercise; and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory. This most excellent canopy the air, look you, this brave o’erhanging, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire—why, it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours.

• Here’s a little bit from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, in which her dry humor is on display. See if you can do something like it, either based on people you know or a few of your characters:

Elizabeth took up some needlework, and was sufficiently amused in attending to what passed between Darcy and his companion. The perpetual commendations of the lady, either on his handwriting, or on the evenness of his lines, or on the length of his letter, with the perfect unconcern with which her praises were received, formed a curious dialogue, and was exactly in union with her opinion of each.

“How delighted Miss Darcy will be to receive such a letter!”

He made no answer.

“You write uncommonly fast.”

“You are mistaken. I write rather slowly.”

“How many letters you must have occasion to write in the course of a year! Letters of business, too! How odious I should think them!”

“It is fortunate, then, that they fall to my lot instead of yours.”

• Write an imitation paragraph of advice on some aspect of writing, say, setting, or anything else–in my voice!

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!

Contest! Special Announcement!

I think this is worth an extra, quick post, though it’s probably for your younger siblings or your children. Starting a few days ago, Barnes & Noble is sponsoring a writing contest for kids between six and twelve and publishing the winners in an anthology, which will have a foreword by me. (I will not be one of the judges.) Here’s a link for the details: https://www.barnesandnobleinc.com/press-release/barnes-noble-launches-national-childrens-short-story-contest/.

Happy Birthday, Blog!

In case you guys are interested, it’s roughly the tenth anniversary of the blog. My first post is dated May 13, 2009, so I’m off by a few months. Happy birthday, blog! You’re a tween! Today’s question appears on single-spaced page 227 of my list, which is long enough to be a novel of about 400 pages. Pretty cool. Yay, us!

Before I start, I want to let you know that, here on the website, way in advance of publication, I’ve posted the first chapter of A Ceiling Made of Eggshells, a description, the flap copy, and a bibliography of the books that were most important in my research. Please take a look!

Now, here we go.

On June 19, 2019, Writing Ballerina wrote, I do need suggestions on how to write an army attack.

Two of you weighed in.

Emma: I’m going to have to write one of those eventually as well, and I have no idea how. I think the battle scenes in the Chronicles of Narnia are really interesting to think about from a writer’s standpoint, because C. S. Lewis never really explained them in much detail; while in the Lord of the Rings, armies and battles seemed to be more of the highlights of the books. I suppose that’s mostly the age difference in the audiences, but still, it’s interesting how different they are.

Ainsley: Another book series with great battle scenes is The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander, the last book especially. They’re also really good books in general.

These suggestions are great. I agree about reading books with battle scenes, not just fantasy books but also literary fiction. The two that come to my mind are classics: All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque about World War I, and Catch 22 by Joseph Heller about World War II.

On the nonfiction side, an interesting book is War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning by Chris Hedges (high school and up).

Some of you may know veterans who are willing to describe their experiences. Even if you’re writing fantasy or historical fiction, they can tell you how it felt to be fighting.

And some of you may be vets, so you know.

I had to think about battles and war when I wrote The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre, and I was worried. How could I show the movement of large forces when I was writing in first person?

I haven’t read any Lloyd Alexander, and I don’t remember much of The Chronicles of Narnia, but I do remember LOTR pretty well, and my recollection is that the many battles and skirmishes in the trilogy are told from a limited third-person POV, generally in the voice of the least elevated character present, so that if, for example, both Frodo and Aragorn are there, Frodo tells what’s going on. If only Samwise and Frodo are in the scene, the POV belongs to Sam. The wide perspective is sacrificed for the particular, but it works, and readers like me care more about the POV character than we do about battalions of anonymous combatants. I don’t know how I would have coped if Sam in particular had bit the dust!

So that was the approach I took in Lost Kingdom. Everything is seen and related through the eyes of MC Perry, though sometimes she gets reports from other characters, who also can tell only what they’ve experienced or have been told. Willem, her romantic interest, describes his first engagement in detail. At one point she and Willem climb a sentry tower and oversee the massing of two armies, which is the closest I come to movements of large forces. Later, Perry travels across the kingdom and glimpses conflict along the way.

In my opinion, the up-close perspective is the way to go for most battles. The reader will enter the scene better through a character he cares about. That way we can bring in detail–the sounds, the smells, the sights–that will infuse it with life. If our POV character is in the thick of it, we may have to bring in serious elements–screams, blood, injury, death, loss of a loved one–so we need to be prepared to deal with all that. We also have to experience it all through our MCs. How do they experience war? Are they entirely taken over by adrenaline? Or ruled by a strange calm? Does it seem like a dream? Or something else.

But there may be moments when we want to pull back and see a bigger picture. We can write from an omniscient third-person POV for this. Then we can zoom into a character to show the fight close up and then out again for the larger perspective. Omniscient third, in my opinion, is the most powerful perspective.

If we’re writing fantasy, our MC can fly over the war on a dragon’s back. She can have magical help, like a magic spyglass that can see the distant battle. She can speak the language of animals, who can be her scouts and spies.

If our story is modern, we can use technology. Our MC can be communicating with a command center. Or she may be able to fly above the fray–or drones with cameras can reveal what’s going on. In breaks in the fighting, she can get reports from the news online. She can interview eyewitnesses.

If we’re writing medieval’ish fantasy, we can find tons online: fencing lessons; ancient weapons; war machines and how they worked; analyses of historic battles and sieges–battles on land and battles at sea. These are fascinating.

We have to decide how gory we want to be, how close up we want to get. I’d suggest that we be sparing. There can be tragedy and horror overload. By even the third terrible injury or death, the reader may be dulled.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Your MC Samara is in the infantry, marching to war in the middle of a battalion of six hundred foot soldiers. The battle will begin at any moment. Somewhere in the horde is her sister, also a soldier. Her sister has an enchanted sword, and she has an enchanted shield, but neither one has power without the other. Write her attempt to find her sister just as fighting breaks out.

∙ This time Samara is in a tent. Imagine mid-19th century warfare with or without magic. She commands an army that’s outnumbered on the field. Scouts bring her reports; maps are spread across a table; she hasn’t slept in days. Her trusted assistant stands at her side–except that her trust in him is misplaced, because he’s sold his country out to the enemy. Write the scene, and clue the reader in that he’s a villain. Decide whether or not Samara sniffs out his treachery.

∙ In her first battle, Samara’s best friend, who’s fighting next to her, is seriously wounded. Samara wants to help her friend, but she’s beset on every side and her squadron is falling back. Write the scene and don’t skimp on the gore.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Happily Ever After–Or Not So Much

On January 6, 2019, Kit Kat Kitty wrote, Does anyone have any advice on how to end a story in a bittersweet way? I’m a sucker for bittersweet endings. However, I’m not sure how to really do that. I often feel as if bittersweet endings aren’t satisfying enough, and there’s always going to be a part of readers that wanted everything to end happily. Any advice on how to fix this problem?

Ideas poured in.

Melissa Mead: I think that there’s no such thing as an ending that satisfies everybody. Why do you feel like bittersweet endings might not be satisfying enough? What are they missing?

Kit Kat Kitty wrote back: In the kind of stories I like to write, I like to make my characters suffer. Losing a loved one, getting their memory wiped, realizing they may be wrong…even I’m tempted to let them live happily. Most people are satisfied when they think that someone, after so long, can have a rest. But then again, I could be wrong. I personally have always wondered if people who fought in wars that took up most of their youth could really ever move on. I guess I want to satisfy the part of me that wants a happy ending, and the part of me that doesn’t.

Christie V Powell: I thought Harry Potter did a good job. The happy epilogue with the kids really helped. Before that, Harry was just exhausted, and still in shock/mourning for the people who had died. The epilogue, many years later, showed that things did work out and peace did come, but that it took a long time. On the other hand, Animorphs, if you read the last couple of books, was realistic but not satisfying. They won (I hope that’s not a spoiler– no one expected the evil invading aliens to win, did they?), but some of the characters are left as a huge mess.

TV Tropes has a list of examples: https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/BittersweetEnding

Melissa Mead: FWIW, I love Lord of The Rings, and that has a classic bittersweet ending.

Raina: One key thing I’ve noticed in a lot of bittersweet endings is that characters (and by extension, the readers) want a lot of different things, but only get some of what they want. Or there are two good possible outcomes, but only one can happen. Sometimes the characters have to choose themselves, while sometimes it’s decided for them by the universe. One example of the latter is the ending of the final Narnia book; the whole gang gets to go back to the magical world of Narnia at the end and stay forever but *SPOILER ALERT* they do so by dying in a train crash, which means they also lose access to the “real world” forever. Sure, Narnia is a paradise and the characters seem pretty happy with living happily ever after there, but I, at least, was a bit sad at the thought of them all dying.

From a different perspective, I think adding some “sweet” to a bitter ending can by done by showing that life goes on or starts anew, even when loss happens. A great example of this is Charlotte’s Web. While the story does kind of have a happy conclusion to the main conflict (all the efforts to keep Wilbur alive succeed, and he’s now safe from being slaughtered), the story also takes a major sad turn immediately after when *SPOILER ALERT* Charlotte reaches the end of her lifespan and dies. But there’s also a glimmer of hope at the end because Charlotte left an egg sac behind, which then hatches into a bunch of baby spiders, a few of which elect to stay and keep Wilbur company. So even though Charlotte is gone, there’s also a promise of new life and new characters that help make up for the loss.

Another option is a Pyrrhic victory, in which the ending is happy, but getting to that ending came at a cost. The Harry Potter books is the perfect example: Voldemort is defeated, all of the main characters end up with happy lives, and the wizarding world is back to normal, but a whole bunch of beloved side characters died in order to get to that happy ending. So while the epilogue is more of a traditional happy ending, I imagine there’s still some sadness when you think about all the characters that aren’t there to enjoy it.

Melissa Mead: A Pyrrhic victory is one where the cost wasn’t worth it. I just find those depressing. With Harry Potter, even though we mourn the people who were killed, it does turn out better for the world in the long run.

“One example of the latter is the ending of the final Narnia book; the whole gang gets to go back to the magical world of Narnia at the end and stay forever…” Except for poor Susan. I get nightmares thinking of what it must have been like for her, left behind with her whole family killed. The Chronicles are some of my favorite books, except for that..

This discussion got me thinking about completely happy endings in a less-than-well-crafted story. My husband and I just finished watching a sci fi series on TV, which I won’t name. It was entertaining, and we stuck with it because the characters were appealing, even though we knew that the whole thing was flimsy. The writers, in my opinion, wrote themselves into a dark corner and then fabricated a happy ending by sending everybody back in time! Honestly, I was okay with it–I didn’t want tragedy, but it wasn’t great. The plot was incomprehensible to begin with, so the writers could have come up with an incomprehensible twist to save the day, which would have been better–though still not good.

I’m now thinking about romcoms as a source of completely happy endings. One of my favorites, When Harry Met Sally, is delightful, but both Harry and Sally, especially Harry, I think, have to face a lot of hard truths about themselves to get to Happy Ever After, and those discoveries don’t go away.

Or take Pride and Prejudice. Darcy has to recognize his pride, and both he and Elizabeth have to face their prejudices. Neither Wickham nor Lydia go away at the end. Mr. Bennett has to admit his failings and their consequences. The only one who doesn’t suffer is Mrs. Bennet, who starts out hopeless.

Or even my Ella Enchanted. Ella suffers in the course of the book, and her suffering will inform the rest of her life and the choices she makes. The experience of Lucinda’s curse could make her a little overprotective when she has children–but I don’t know, since I haven’t written a sequel.

My conclusion is that, unless the author goes back in time or erases the characters’ memories, if there was real suffering, there is some bittersweet.

Tragedy is always a choice, although it might be worth considering (but not now) if there’s always some sweetness, at least for someone, in the bitter. (Hamlet does solve the mystery.)

Of course endings don’t just pop up at the end. We head toward them from somewhere earlier in our story. Not everyone does this, but I usually have an idea about the ending before I start writing and I drive my story in that direction from the beginning.

So if we want a bittersweet ending, how do we set out to achieve it?

In LOTR, for example, Mordor is defeated, but Middle Earth changes, a possibility that Tolkien intimates early on. Or take Peter Pan, the original Barrie classic. The children–other than Peter–get the lives they want (if not the lives I want for them), but Peter is left alone in the purgatory of his perpetual childhood. He isn’t sad for long, because he isn’t capable of any prolonged feeling, another bittersweet element.

Let’s imagine an old-fashioned scale, the kind we see in illustrations of Blind Justice, and let’s use the scale for our bittersweet-ending purpose. Take the example of Charlotte’s Web, mentioned by Raina. On one balance is Wilbur; on the other is Charlotte. At the end, they aren’t in balance. Wilbur’s up, and Charlotte’s down, but not all the way down, not only because of the egg sac, but also because her life had so much meaning, and she proved herself to be such a good friend and wonderful person, er, spider. Or in Peter Pan, Wendy and her brothers and the lost boys are up, but Peter is partway down. Or hobbits and humans are up, but the elves are halfway down.

So, we can get our bittersweetness by making two things be at stake in our story, say winning a war and saving the treasures in the royal museum. At the end, the war is won and the museum is saved, but the tapestry woven by the great-grandfather of our MC, which we’ve made precious to the reader, is damaged past saving by fire. Bittersweet. Or more bittersweet if we destroy the museum entirely and if we’ve made the reader know the significance of this for the MC and her world.

For an MC with a personal struggle, like a lost loved one in Kit Kat Kitty’s example, we still can set up a counterweight. Suppose our MC, Josie, loses her mom, Naomi, when she’s sixteen and really needs a mother. In this case, the bitter may be easy, the sweet harder. We set up the conflict. Josie’s father, lost in his own grief, isn’t available to her. She’s a talented violinist and usually can lose herself in music, but now she can’t let herself feel pleasure when her mother no longer can. We can pile it on. Her friends, after a while, drift away because she’s so sad. She can’t concentrate, and her grades go down. A new driver, she totals her dad’s car.

But all of these bitters are also opportunities for sweet. When she picks up her violin again, she notices and her teacher confirms, that her playing has more depth of feeling. An unexpected friend stands by her. Her dad realizes that he’s abandoned her. (Maybe the car accident wakes him up.) Her former confident self starts asserting itself again; she asks for tutoring and applies to retake some exams.

We probably don’t want to apply all these fixes, or we’ll get a totally happy ending, but the possibilities are there, and we can make use of them.

Here are four prompts:

∙ Take “Hansel and Gretel,” in my opinion the most troubling fairy tale of them all. Write the whole story or the final scene and resolve the parental abandonment in a bittersweet way.

∙ Prince Charming doesn’t find Cinderella, the girl who can squeeze into the glass slippers. Write his life before and after the balls, his challenges, whatever they are, his continued longing for the mysterious damsel who fit into his arms, just as the slipper must surely have fit someone’s feet. Give him a bittersweet ending.

∙ Prince Charming doesn’t make his way to Cinderella’s stepmother’s house. Her fairy godmother, disappointed in the empty outcome of the balls, finds another child to tend to. Cinderella continues to live with her stepfamily. Write a scene or the whole story, giving it a bittersweet ending.

∙ Write the story of the war and the museum. Give it a bittersweet ending.

Have fun, and save what you write!