Just a quick post about a poetry contest for teens from fifteen to eighteen. Here’s the link: https://www.narrativemagazine.com/narrative-in-the-schools-program/sixth-annual-contest
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/.
This isn’t really a post, though there will be one on Wednesday as usual. I just want to let you know, in case you’d like to watch or you have siblings or your own kids who’d like to. Starting tomorrow at 11:00 am Eastern Daylight Time, I’ll be reading a chapter a day of Ella Enchanted.
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!
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!
Beth Schmelzer and I had a back-and-forth on this one. On December 22, 2018, she wrote, I am very interested in Ms Levine’s newest WIP.
I am writing (and re-writing) a historical fiction story which takes place in Indiana in 1959 and 1960. My main character is unhappy to find out her parents and grandmother have been keeping a “Family Secret” from her. The mystery involves her deceased grandfather. Any adult reading the book will guess the secret early, but readers in middle grade will not recognize the name of an obscure author named Leon David Hirsch. So you can see why I am interested in your research and your final book with such an intriguing plot. Solving the mystery for my MC is difficult because there is no Internet available to her. The clues to the family secret are discovered by listening to family conversations and reading hidden letters Deborah finds. Any suggestions will be gratefully accepted.
Me: I do see books by Leon David Hirsch on a Google search, but I’m sorry to say I don’t know who he was. And I’m not sure what your question (or questions) is. Can you say more?
Me again: Since Beth Schmelzer didn’t write back, I’m adding her question to my list as a general one about writing and researching a historical novel.
Then she did write back.
Beth Schmelzer: Leon David Hirsch was my grandfather. He wrote one long political novel in 1918 and a short mystery paperback published in 1946. That’s why I said he was obscure. The mystery in my novel is: Why does no one talk about the grandfather? I thought you might recognize that his name is Jewish. The MC in my novel is growing up in Indiana in the 1950’s; she only knows Christians (Protestants and some Catholics). My real question, which can only be answered as fiction: Why would family hide the fact that the grandfather was Jewish? I thought you would be interested in this question. Sorry to be so obtuse with dropping my grandfather ‘s name. Deborah thinks it sounds important, but she doesn’t know why!
I researched my first historical novel, Dave at Night, which takes place in 1926, before the internet–or before I was aware of it. That was in the late 1990s. But I had an advantage, which Beth Schmelzer’s MC also has: I knew people who were alive in 1926, and one in particular, the late, wonderful Irv Aschheim, had an encyclopedic memory. Of course, I didn’t just talk to Irv. I visited the New York Historical Society, looked at the photo collection at the New York Public Library. I read books about the period, especially about the Harlem Renaissance, which comes into the story. I also read poems and one novel written at the time. I looked at old newspapers on microfiche. I visited the New York City Subway Museum and the Tenement House Museum. I even talked to an expert in classic cars.
Our MC for the purposes of this post, let’s call her Susan, a popular name at the time, has family who remember the grandfather. and she must know other people who were around then, too. Since the novel takes place in 1959 and 1960 and the grandfather died in the 1940s, Susan is researching recent history. If she can’t ask her parents and her grandmother direct questions, she can ask her friends’ parents, her teachers, the kindly owner of the local candy store.
She can do many of the same things I did, and she can visit the local newspaper office itself, talk to reporters. She doesn’t know the internet will ever exist, so she doesn’t realize how handicapped she is. People in those days relied on snail mail much more than we do today. She could write to people, or she can apply for records. Tension can build while she waits for answers.
Naturally, she’ll read the two books her grandfather wrote if she knows about them. If the family has kept his things, she’ll go through them on the sly.
I’d also wonder how the grandfather died and if he lived nearby. Naturally, I don’t know if Susan remembers him.
Being a detective here, myself, I deduce that Susan and her parents aren’t Jewish, and Hirsch isn’t their surname, for which there could be more than one reason. For one, Susan’s grandfather may have been the only Jew in the family. Or they all may have converted, for faith reasons, or to be more like everybody else, or even out of fear of stigma. Their reason, however, would have to be something that caused them discomfort, or it wouldn’t be a secret–nice for conflict!
On to historical fiction in general.
Beth Schmelzer is drawn to her subject because it’s connected to her family history. Same for me. Dave at Night is loosely based on my dad’s childhood in an orphanage, and my ancestors were expelled from Spain in 1492, as were my characters. I wanted to explore what that may have been like.
It’s not a bad idea to think about what connects you to a possible historical period. Maybe you love to read about the Civil War, or you live near a battlefield, or your ancestors were slaves or slave holders. Maybe you’re into medieval reenactments–which will give you a leg up on research. Or maybe you’re just drawn to certain historical moments.
You can ask yourself questions to find your topic and see which you’re most drawn to: What was it like to be a woman in the court of King Henry VIII? From the vantage point of a descendant of Europeans or of Asians when the continents were connected, what was it like to come upon the Grand Canyon? What characters were involved in turning ancient Greece into a democracy? How did their democracy fail? What happened in the first encounters between ancient Romans and ancient Britons? What did they deduce and what did they assume about one another?
You could reimagine any of these as fantasy, but you want to try your hand at actual history and shape your story around what really happened.
The next step is broad reading. My go-to starting spot is Wikipedia. Read the article about your topic, and check out the footnotes and bibliography, where you’ll often strike gold. Sometimes there are links to scholarly articles that you can just click on, that you may even be able to download. Or you may find a general book that covers your period.
You can also google “books on…” whatever. Then look the book up and check out the reader reviews. Your local library may be able to get the book for you. Even better, if you’re attending a university, its library will be able to.
While you’re reading this general book, think about conflict and what your story may be. As that takes shape, start jotting down notes or a rough outline. Look for where the story might end. (Also, this book will have footnotes and a bibliography that may include books that focus more narrowly on your subject.) If you can find material that was written during your period, you’ll get more than facts; you’ll get attitude, perspective, language.
I found out in researching the expulsion book that historians and experts are nice! And kind! When I had questions, I first looked for the answers myself, but if I came up empty, I checked the copyright date of my book. If it was published within the last twenty years or so, I googled the author for some way to contact her or him. Usually I found something, and usually the person I reached out to was willing to help.
It’s amazing what’s available online, a lot for free. I’ve read doctoral theses. I read an undergraduate thesis about caravels, a kind of sailing ship in the fifteenth century. I had questions, but I couldn’t find the author on Facebook or anywhere. I finally used an online White Pages and saw several people with the author’s name. He’d dedicated the thesis to his then fiancee, and one of the White Pages listings had her name associated with his. If they’d broken up, I’d never have managed to contact him! I wrote to him via snail mail and started out by assuring him I wasn’t a stalker!
I’ve spoken to some experts by phone, and three have been willing to read my manuscript and tell me where I went wrong. A naval historian answered many detailed questions. Of course I’ll acknowledge their help in the book.
What we do in writing historical fiction uses what historians give us and goes beyond, by which I don’t mean at all that fiction is better, just different. We’re not tracking down archives that haven’t been looked at in years, even centuries. We’re taking those hard-won discoveries and, like Sleeping Beauty’s prince, waking them up. The historian deals in events and facts. We do, too, but we also deal in texture. How did a rural fifteenth century village smell? What sounds would you hear if you walked down the street? Who would be on the street? Doing what?
We have to know those details or our story won’t come to life, but they’re hard to track down if we’re researching a period that isn’t recent. I once wrote a question to Ask-a-Historian on Reddit and said I needed the information for a novel. My question had to do with harbor life. The historians-in-charge said that Reddit historians don’t like questions from novelists, because they tend to be frivolous!
Google images of houses and furniture are great for finding detail, likewise images of paintings from the period. Museum websites are marvelous places to noodle around in. I found and bought a modern copy of one of the oldest books on fashion in the world.
Research is so fascinating that it’s dangerous. We have to keep our purpose in mind: to write a novel, not to know more than anyone on earth about, say, Napoleon’s childhood!
Having said that, though, I’m so glad to have made the discoveries that I did, like that gambling was considered a major crime in the Middle Ages–yet everybody did it. Sailors and passengers often played cards for money on ships, because life on board was boring when there wasn’t a storm or pirates weren’t attacking. Playing cards were new and expensive, then, and few people owned them, so the ones who did would rent them out. Really!
But the owner of the deck wouldn’t charge until someone won a hand. The winner would be expected to be in a good mood then, and willing to pay. Also, sailors and passengers would gather to watch games, and winners would be expected to tip them for watching (I don’t know why) out of their winnings. (None of this comes into my book, but I’m delighted just to know it.)
These are the pleasures of researching historical fiction. Of course, our story has to work as a story, too, and we have to deal as usual with plot, character, setting, pacing, POV–everything.
Here are three prompts:
∙ Read a Wikipedia article about a historical event or a figure that interests you. Think about what the conflict was at the time, or a major challenge in your person’s life. Consider how you might build a story around that. Jot down a few notes. Without doing further research, write a scene. If you decide to continue, embark on more research.
∙ Interview an old person! Like me! My memories of the world-shaking events during my life are pretty vague, but I do remember–as few seem to–that Richard Nixon (aside from the other thing) imposed wage-and-price controls when inflation got out of hand. Prices were zooming so much that I often observed supermarket cashiers making mistakes because they couldn’t believe the escalations. (There were no bar codes then. Everything was manual.) The price controls stopped the inflation, but my salary was also frozen, so it was a wash for me. Anyway, think about what the old person you interviewed said. Can you find a story there? Do a little research. Write a scene.
∙ Pick one of these: the Korean War; the Dust Bowl; the French Revolution; Mayan civilization when the Spanish explorers showed up; ancient Somalia. Go to Wikipedia again. If conflict isn’t obvious, look for it. What can by your angle? Who will your characters be? Write a scene.
Have fun, and save what you write!
Happy new year! Thanks to all of you, who make this blog a writer’s haven!
For any who will be in the New York City area on January 17th, I’ll be giving a writing workshop and talk at the New York Society Library. Details are on the In-Person page here on the website.
Thanks to everyone who suggested titles for my expulsion book! I’m putting together a list of possibilities for my editor, and I’ll let you know what happens. If her answer turns out to be None of the Above, as I fear, I’ll come back for more help.
On October 12, 2018, Melissa Mead wrote, How do you identify your writing style? I’m thinking of sending “Malak’s Book” to an agent, and one of the things they want in the query letter is examples of authors with a similar style.
I know who I WISH I wrote like, but how can I tell if I actually DO?
Melissa Mead later added this: Many years ago I sold a series to a magazine, and the editor encouraged me to submit stories to the later issues anyway, but under a pseudonym. So I did. I also used a different address, phone #, you name it. Here’s what happened:
Editor: “Nice story, Melissa, but I’m afraid we won’t be using it.”
Me: “How’d you know it was me?”
Editor: “I recognized your style.”
I had a style! I’d only been writing for publication for 2 years, and I had a recognizable style! I was giddy.
MAN, I wish I’d thought to ask him what it was.
Raina replied, CPs (critique partners) are a big help here. Often, they can see things that we can’t, or see things in a different way than we do. You can also make a list of things that you write a lot or write really well; are your books funny? Do you write beautiful descriptions? Thrilling action sequences? Literary or philosophical things? (A CP can also help with this.) After that, just find authors who are a match for some or all of those attributes.
Also, do they specifically want you to list authors with a similar style, or just comp titles in general? Because with the latter, it doesn’t have to be an exact match, just books/authors whose readers might also like your book. Most people use the same ones, to be honest, which just shows how un-specific they are. For example, in YA Fantasy, Sarah J. Maas, Leigh Bardugo, and Victoria Aveyard are the big names I see in queries.
I love technical questions like this. Please send more if you have them.
My advice would be to not say your (or anyone’s) style is like Shakespeare’s! Probably not like Tolstoy’s, Faulkner’s, or Jane Austen’s, either–even if it’s true!
Seriously, though, sometimes I think we give the gatekeepers (editors and agents) too much credit. If you say your style is like, say, mine, I doubt very much that an editor will launch a comparative analysis of the two of us.
It’s probably safe to name authors of books you admire in the genre you’re writing in. It’s likely to be true, too. If you read a lot of someone’s books and tend to reread them as well, his or her style is likely to infuse your own writing, even without your awareness.
I would blithely list authors you aspire to be like. I don’t think it’s terrible–or matters at all–if we’re clueless about whose writing is most similar to our own. There are aspects of the question that I’m not crazy about anyway. It seems fraught with danger. Suppose you say your work is like the writing of an author this agent or editor happens to despise. Or, if you say it’s like someone on the New York Times bestseller list, the editor or agent may suspect your motive for the comparison–implying that your manuscript will also land on bestseller lists. What if the editor has never heard of the author you name, and he feels stupid?
You might do some research and find out what writers the editor has worked with or the agent represents. Then, being a conscientious person, you can read the books of those writers and see if you feel an affinity. That’s not a bad way to go. I would be straightforward about it, though, and say what you did in your query letter.
Another option is to ignore the question. If I felt I could get away with it, that’s what I would do.
However, editors and agents aside, I think there’s value in inquiring into our style, though I tend to think of the term as voice. What follows is full of prompts, so there won’t be any at the end.
For one of my poetry school craft classes, my classmates and I had to read a poetry collection every week and write an analysis of the poet’s style and an imitation poem. I loved writing the imitation poems!
To do them, I examined each poet’s work on both a micro and macro level. On the micro level, I looked at things like line and sentence length, where line breaks occurred, sound devices (like alliteration and assonance), formal elements (like rhyme and meter), punctuation, capitalizing, metaphors, similes, etc.
On the macro level, I paid attention to tone, subject matter, how personal or not the poems were. Were they, in poetry lingo, confessional? Intellectual, idea poems? Were they easily understood or the opposite or somewhere in the middle? Did they tell a story?
Then I used what I’d discovered to write my imitation poem. Some of it was mechanical, but it was also creative to get inside someone else’s approach and make it, at least briefly, my own. By the end of the semester, I had new moves I could apply to my own poems, approaches that hadn’t been natural to me but became part of my repertoire.
We can do the same thing with a fiction writer we admire. We can look at what she does on both a micro and macro level. Try it! Open a beloved book to a random place. How does the page look? Are there lots of paragraphs or just one or two? Is there dialogue, or just narration? Or only dialogue? Open to a different page. Is the same still true? Do you see a pattern?
Examine a paragraph of narration, or a few if they’re short. Look at sentence length. Are they long, short, or varied? Do the beginnings repeat? Do words repeat? Do you see any italics? When you go to the next paragraph, does the beginning repeat from the one before? Is the vocabulary difficult? Do you notice exclamation points? Many questions? (If you’re reading my books, probably yes, many questions–I have to pull myself back.) Do you sense a rhythm in the prose? (There needn’t be any.) Do you see many or any parentheticals? Dashes? Colons? Semi-colons?
Zooming out, think of the book as a whole. Look at POV, tense, first-person or third. Do any of these switch? Does this writer use flashbacks? Are there big time jumps? How does the book start? With action, description, dialogue, setting? Do you see a lot of thoughts? Much emotion and emoting? Does telling or showing predominate? Humor?
Examine your own writing in the same way, asking yourself the same macro and micro questions. I’m pretty sure you’ll make discoveries about your voice/style.
Returning to the micro level, pick a paragraph–any paragraph that’s long enough to work with–in your own WIP and rewrite it as an imitation of the voice of the writer you’ve just studied. Have you learned something? Do you feel that you broke out of your mold and acquired new options?
When you’re about to start a new project, think of the macro level of the admired writer. Is there anything you can incorporate? When I wrote Ogre Enchanted, I decided to make Evie choose the guy I believe Jane Austen would have chosen, if she wrote fairy tale fantasy. She may have rotated in her grave, but I didn’t hear her bones rattle.
If you try my suggestions, please post how the process went. What did you learn?
Have fun, and save what you write!
This is going to be an unusual post. On March 28, 2018, Carley Anne wrote, There’s a part of my manuscript that’s been bothering me: much of the drive for my story (though not all), is that there’s a supposed legend which gives a date for when certain things will be ‘ended.’ Some characters believe in the legend, others do not; we don’t know the truth until the end of the story–but whether the legend is real or no, my antagonist believes it, so therefore, everyone has no choice but to act. How do I make a legend believable? Without smoke and mirrors (and some old, wise, stereotypical cloaked guy rasping the legend’s words through the darkness, if you know what I mean). There are supernatural beings in my fictional world, and they are the first to hear of said legend, but I’ve been looking for ways to reveal bits and pieces to the readers, so that it’s believable, and straightforward. As far as legends go.
You responded so well and thoroughly that I have little to add, so I’m going to reprise the responses, put in a few thoughts of my own, and move on the a second question.
Angie: Maybe you could show signs that the legend could be true by having certain aspects of it line up with real-life events? Events that could be explained away, but also seem to carry the weight of prophecy to those who believe, i.e. a storm or an eclipse bringing darkness, or a kingdom whose rulers and heirs cannot survive past a certain age (perhaps due to a hereditary disease, OR, due to a curse/legend that seems to be coming to pass) or something to that effect. Something like this could make a legend seem real enough to sway many people into believing it.
Raina: Ditto what Angie said about having certain aspects match up with real events. If people think “look the prophecy is right about x and y, it’s probably going to be right about z too,” they’ll probably believe it. In addition, you could also make the terms either general enough or metaphorical enough that anything could be interpreted as fulfilling it. For example, if a prophecy says something like “a dragon shall sit on the throne,” it could mean a literal dragon (like in Terry Pratchett’s book GUARDS! GUARDS!), a monarch whose house sigil is a dragon (like the Targaryans in Game of Thrones), somebody with a draconian personality, or just somebody named “Dragon”. I think any of these explanations would seem logical, especially if people are thinking about it after it occurs. There’s something in psychology called Hindsight Bias (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hindsight_bias) in which people tend to see past events as predictable, despite no evidence. I think that effect would be especially strong in the context of a prophecy, and it wouldn’t take a lot to make people go “yep, the prophecy definitely predicted that.”
Also, does your antagonist have any particular reason for believing the prophecy? If they believe it because they want it to be true, they might also be affected by confirmation bias (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Confirmation_bias) and perceive every little thing as a sign of the prophecy. I think as long as your characters truly believe in the prophecy and act accordingly, your reader will too. You could reveal bits of the prophecy to the reader by having some characters mention bits and pieces of the prophecy (like: “oh, hey, a red sun rises, just like it said in the legend) and maybe even discussing/arguing about it.
Bethany: The legend could give some precursor proof (you know, things the legend says will happen before the rest of it starts), such as a lightning storm taking out a major building or the royal baby dying, that could all be happening. That would give the readers that little sneaking fear of ‘is this actually going to happen?’ Or a few of the smaller things the legend says will end could actually get ended. Then the legend would seem to be starting to come true, if any of this makes sense to you.
My turn: We might add weight to the legend through corroborating evidence, as often happens when scientific ideas become confirmed, as in physics, when particles are observed to behave in a way that bears out a new theory. In our story, a scroll might be discovered that revels the credible origins of the legend. Or an ancient civilization might be excavated. Their urns are decorated with scenes from the legend.
Or the belief of a respected character can give weight to the legend. If Gandalf, for example, believes it, this reader (me) would be sure it must be true.
Of course, we have to keep our eye on the truth that only we know: the factual or fictitious nature of the legend. We want to be sure that we have the balance right between belief and doubt in the minds of our characters and our readers, because we want the eventual reveal to work.
On to the next question. If anyone responded to this one, I missed it, and I apologize.
On April 12, 2018, Enchanted wrote: I’m in the middle of writing a trilogy (eek!) and I’m a little stumped. The story is based on “Snow White,” except it involves vampires. Basically, Snow White starts off as a pampered princess (her father spoils her) and she has a best friend, this young prince from the neighboring kingdom who has slowly become…more than a friend. He visits her during the summer but lives in his own country most of the time, so they mostly communicate by letter. Snow White’s father brings home his new wife; aforementioned evil stepmother murders him, and Snow White gets framed for it. She escapes prison, but the evil queen shuts down all the roads out of the country, so the only way to get out is through a forest full of vampires. The vampires catch her, but they’re really running this resistance movement against the queen, so they want to help Snow White. One of the vampires is really young and handsome, and Snow White starts falling in love with him (by the end of the trilogy, she has to choose either her best friend or the hot vampire–no spoilers!). Eventually, the evil queen figures out she’s hiding in the forest and sends some bad guys to kill Snow White. One of the men stabs her, but the vampires bite her back to life and then she becomes one of them. Then they set off for the castle where her best friend lives, because they need his army to overthrow the queen. That’s the end of Book 1.
My problem is with the pacing; the middle of the story slouches for me (I think Gail calls this the “sagging middle”). Because for several chapters, they’re holed up in a cottage in the woods. Of course there’s all this romance going on with Snow White and the handsome vampire, but I feel like there’s not enough meat to the middle of the story and not enough motivation for them to just sit around in this cottage when there’s an urgent need to get to the other country. And I need time to pass somehow, because there has to be enough time for them to fall in love and also some crazy stuff needs to happen in the capital with the evil queen while they’re gone.
Any suggestions would be appreciated! (I know, it’s a tricky one!)
I’ve been thinking about this in my own WIP, my historical novel about the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492. You’d think it would be all action and danger, but I’m including some of the lead-up to the expulsion, which historically took at least a hundred years, though I’m covering only the final nine. For most of that time, my MC, Cima, is safe. Terrible things are happening, but she’s protected by her prominent, wealthy Jewish family. I often found myself struggling to stay awake. To wake myself up, I listed whatever I could think of that makes trouble for Cima. You can do the same. Here’s what I mean:
∙ I’ve introduced family conflict in the form of a hysterical mother and an evil brother. Cima hates discord, and she suffers. That livens things up! Discord is an item on my list. Applying this to Enchanted’s story, is all sweetness and light among the vampires in the cottage? If not, how do their problems affect Snow White? Can she be in actual danger? Even when they leave the cottage the negative emotions can bubble up when the plot has to slow down.
∙ Cima loves children and, from the beginning of the book when she’s seven, what she wants most is to be a mother someday. This is another item on my list. I keep threatening Cima’s most cherished desire. For example, the evil brother reveals what her horoscope said when she was born, and the signs were not auspicious for motherhood. I’m not sure what Snow White wants (she can want more than one thing), but whatever it is might be can be brought to the fore and made unlikely.
∙ Jews during this period were sometimes baptized by force, though Church policy didn’t approve. Once baptized, even forcibly, people weren’t allowed to go back to the old religion. Cima fears baptism, and I bring this fear in sometimes when my story slows. So what does Snow White fear, and what does she want? Can that fear and that desire be awakened in the cottage?
∙ Cima is her grandfather’s favorite, which also causes conflict. Other family members are jealous, and he’s demanding. For Enchanted, can the romance create stress in the cottage? Might the romance itself get bumpy sometimes?
The overarching strategy is to look around at our plot and our characters to find threads we can exploit when the going gets tedious. We can give our MC personality buttons that go off when pushed. Ditto for other characters. We can give her desires that can be frustrated during quiet times as well as during big action scenes.
Here are three prompts:
∙ Your characters are trapped in a mine. This can be a reality-based mine or a fantasy one, possibly created by dwarves. For the moment, they’re safe, and you want them to stay that way for long enough to introduce them all, and you want the reader to stay awake. Using the strategies above, or any others that you think of, write this stuck part of the story. If you like, keep going and write the whole thing.
∙ Your MC is on the road in a rock band. Keep things tense on the trip from New York City to Miami. Write the journey.
∙ Snow White (without vampires) is new to living with the dwarves. The evil queen hasn’t discovered where she is yet. Make the interval until she does tense, even though the dwarves mean her well.
Have fun, and save what you write!
Before the post–just letting you know–I’ll be reading with other poets at 3:00 pm on April 14th at Byrd’s Books at 126 Greenwood Avenue in Bethel, Connecticut. These won’t be poems for kids, but I’d love to see you there, and there will be time to chat.
After my post called “Making It Personal,” on December 21, 2017, Melissa Mead wrote, I’m having the opposite problem. Plenty of personal conflicts, not enough large-scale dramatic action.
I asked her to explain the problem a little more, and she wrote back, Well, it’s those books I’ve mentioned about Malak, who’s half serpent-demon and half “angel,” basically. The first book’s mostly about his culture shock, and I think it works. But as the story goes on, it really ought to be less in Malak’s head and more about the larger ramifications of a half-demon living in the house of a Ward Minister (kind of like a senator), when the Ward Ministers are the ones who hire demon-hunters to protect humans from the serpent-demons.
I love getting deep into characters’ heads and writing from there, but I really should have more stuff happening out there in the wide world, too. More “fabulously difficult journey,” as Carley Anne said.
(Another reason why I love the comments on this blog–that the help we give each other lingers as ongoing support.)
Melissa Mead added, If anybody had ideas on how to work through consequences of having “the enemy” in your house, and how to balance Big Picture and Little Picture thinking, I’d appreciate it. I’m used to writing short-shorts, with a small cast + small scale.
The ever-helpful (I mean it!) Christie V Powell offered this: It might help to look at plot types: I like to refer to Christopher Booker’s Seven Basic Plots when I need help with the big picture plot. Overcoming the Monster (defeating a villain) and Quest (seeking and earning a goal) are most focused on big picture. The others are Rags to Riches (small person overcomes obstacles), Voyage and Return (wandering into a strange new world and seeking to get home), Comedy (relationships become tangled until one bit of clarity rights all wrongs), Tragedy (Overcoming the Monster from the monster’s point of view), and Rebirth (the Monster descends into darkness, but turns and is able to become light).
My WIP right now is being tricky because it’s got three POVs, so technically the big picture is the plot and all three of my main characters are actually subplots. Their families are seeking refuge from persecution, which is the overall story, and their character struggles are second.
Melissa Mead answered: Hm. I think this falls under Rebirth. At least the first book did…
Back to Christie V Powell: If the first one is rebirth, it seems like now he’s already become good and he needs a new plot. What conflict is he up against? Prejudice/bigotry (and if so, which character represents it)? Is he turning against his former snake-demon allies and stopping their schemes? Or coming to the rescue of other former friends who might be able to change?
Melissa Mead: Yes on the first two, There’s an overall arc that I don’t know how to explain without spoilers, except to say that I recently realized that all my books have been about outcasts finding home.
Jim weighed in: If the first book was a rebirth tale and the MC has been established as a “good guy” but there is still a lot of personal conflict and mistrusting characters “overshadowing” the MC then it seems to me that you’re set up for a “rags-to-riches” plot next. How can the MC prove his worth to the larger society? Usually it happens in two stages: first with help (e.g. Aladdin gets the princess with the help of the djinn), and then with the help removed (e.g. The lamp is stolen and Aladdin has to outsmart the magician on his own to get his princess back).
I’m more in Melissa Mead’s camp. For me, it’s cozy in my characters’ heads! The pesky, unpredictable world out there is scary! So, sometimes I have to force myself.
In The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre, for the first time in any of my books, I had to deal with enormous forces acting against each other: Lakti armies against Kyngoll armies, with a Bamarre rebellion in the mix. I didn’t–and still don’t–know how to write at this scale, at least not through a first-person narrator, and it would probably be the same from a third-person limited POV. I might be able to do it with an omniscient third-person POV. (So there’s a strategy I haven’t used: Write in omniscient third.)
Since I was stuck in first person and didn’t know how to do anything else, I kept the action within the range of my MC, Perry. She views the legions arrayed against her from a tower, but only for a few minutes, and that’s the farthest out I zoom my author’s telescope. There are two battle scenes. In the first one, she’s helping the field doctor. In the second, she’s doing something humanitarian, though I won’t say what and have to issue a spoiler alert.
In the second instance, though, the commander of the Lakti force is right where she is, and her actions ripple through the war and set off outsized consequences.
I do this again and again in the book. Small actions have big effects. So, I’d recommend as an approach to stories that play out on an enormous and daunting scale to keep the focus narrow but influential. When we do this, we can bring to bear our skill at the interpersonal stuff, which doesn’t go away just because the fate of the universe is at stake. Our characters are still themselves, still hampered by their limitations and empowered by their strengths.
Then there’s the follow-up problem with the narrow focus: how does our MC keep track of what’s going on? In Lost Kingdom, Perry has a magical aid that helps her travel quickly, so she can see some of the effects and maintain the momentum. But there are other possibilities, like newspaper or gazettes, messengers, letters. A magic one that crops up sometimes in fairy tales is talking birds. There are other magical or occult possibilities as well, like flying dragons or teleportation or ESP. We just want to make sure that our magical devices don’t make matters too easy for our MC.
Let’s take as an example Christy V Powell’s plot archetype of turning against former allies and apply the principle of small actions leading to large consequences. If Malak can prevail over even one snake demon, he’ll come up with methods that can be applied universally to snake-demons. Or this particular snake-demon is an important one, who’s critical to the survival of all the others.
We can start by LISTing the advantages and drawbacks Malak has in this struggle. On the plus side, he knows the way snake-demons plan and operate. He understands better than anyone how ruthless they are. On the down side, they’re individuals to him, with personalities, and he’s recently absorbed empathy. Will he be able to hurt them? If he does, will his new good side be destroyed? If he doesn’t, they will certainly kill him!
The stakes are high.
The setting can be small-scale, too, say the home of a Ward Minister, which will give Malak another advantage if he knows the layout better than his opponent. And a disadvantage, if the Ward Minister’s family, including the adorable three-year-old twins, are present and at risk.
Naturally, this leads to a prompt:
∙ Write a battle scene between a half-ogre-half-elf and a whole ogre in the mansion of a knight. The knight and his family can be there, or not. Think about the qualities of each character and the floor plan of the house. Include thoughts and emotions along with the action, but keep dialogue to a minimum. The results of this battle will reverberate through the worlds of elves and ogres.
And here are two more:
∙ Your ogre-elf is wounded but on the point of victory when the full ogre gets away from her. Write the pursuit. Think again about the setting and the qualities of your characters, and work in thoughts and feelings.
∙ Turn the tables. The full ogre appears unexpectedly, and now he has some new advantage. Your ogre-elf MC has gone from hunter to quarry. Write the chase.
Have fun, and save what you write!
Got a nice surprise last week when five advance reading copies of Ogre Enchanted showed up in my mailbox. So it’s a book, not the book, but a book–always a great moment.
On December 10, 2017, Bird dog wrote, I’ve recently finished the first draft of a story, and in editing, I realized that I want to more openly display my MC’s anxiety. I can describe it accurately enough, and though it is believable, I’m worried that it will be annoying to read. As the story is in first person, I’m worried that this will exasperate the reader to the point of being unwilling to read on.
The obvious solution would be to cut out the effects of anxiety on her life, but I feel like that would be unfair to the issue. The story isn’t about anxiety, and it doesn’t present itself in every situation, but it is a part of her struggle that I feel is important to include.
If anyone has any suggestions, I’d be grateful!
Sara wrote back, First of all, good job on finishing a first draft!!!
I don’t think I’d be annoyed about a character with anxiety, because I guess to a certain point I can kinda relate. Um, of course I don’t know the story and what you feel would bug the reader, but maybe you feel like it’s stopping the action? Or that all of her anxiety attacks are the same? I feel like there’s tons of options for things that can spiral off of an anxiety attack, like your MC has to make a decision and the weight of the consequences stresses her out so much she makes the wrong one. And she has to live with that. Plus, stopping the action can be purposeful and, I dunno, be part of another conflict or something. Anxiety, like every other personality trait, can be used in a bunch of ways.
And Zoe/TheSixthHobbit wrote, I’d suggest you read Turtles All the Way Down by John Green, if you haven’t already. The main character has OCD, and the author does a great job of showing what it’s like to live with that condition, and it’s not at all annoying.
I’ve said this before, and I’ve said it often: We should stifle our worries about what readers will think. It is just a stick to beat ourselves with.
A couple of days ago, I started reading a memoir I will not name and took it with me to New York City, but I hated it so much I couldn’t keep reading and switched to my addiction, Free Cell Solitaire on my cell phone. In my opinion, the writing was cutesy and way too wordy. In the first few pages, the author constantly announced what he would and would not include in the memoir, and I wished he would shut up and just tell what he planned to tell and not blather on about it in advance. So, for this post, I looked at reader reviews of the book on Amazon: “…great storytelling…”; “He writes beautifully.”; “Excellent writing style.” Obviously, readers’ opinions differ.
Another example. In this case I will say the name because he can take it. I can’t bear Stephen King for a similar reason. In my opinion, he overwrites. My husband loves his books, so I’ve tried more than once to read one or two. But my mental red pencil comes out instantly, and I’m deleting words, sentences, entire paragraphs! I prefer spare writing that disappears into the story, but millions–many millions!–disagree with me.
And a few other readers probably don’t like his work for reasons that are different from mine.
And I’ve adored books that haven’t caught on. And others that have.
And my books, incomprehensibly, aren’t the cup of tea of many readers.
Having said all this, however, we can set our fears to rest–or discover that they’re justified with a writers’ group or beta readers. One reader isn’t enough, and three are better than two. Don’t tell them what you’re worried about. Just let them read and then find out what they think. If it doesn’t come up, you can ask about the anxiety–or whatever else you happen to be concerned about.
If only one person is bothered, listen, think about it, and decide if you agree. But if more than one are troubled, and especially if more than two are, take that very seriously.
As for the anxious first-person MC, I’m with Sara on all counts. Yes, congratulations on finishing a draft! Kudos to you!
I’m a champion worrier, with a trophy to prove it, so, like Sara, I can relate, and would almost certainly enjoy a narrator who was like me in this regard.
I also love Sara’s idea of using the anxiety to advance the plot, like having it fuel a bad decision.
And I agree with her that there are many ways to portray anxiety.
It doesn’t have to show up only in description. It can appear in the elements fiction writers have at our disposal: dialogue, thoughts, action, physical symptoms. Even setting, which might be a trigger.
In dialogue, for instance, our MC can stop mid-sentence or trail off, distracted by worries. Or she can chatter uncontrollably. Or stutter. Or yell at people and even things. In the TV legal comedy, Boston Legal (high school and up), one of the MCs at one point gets so stressed that he starts speaking nonsense words and seems not to realize he’s abandoned English. I’m sure there are other possibilities.
A few other examples. Thoughts: Her mind can refuse to settle down and can rattle on and on. Action: She can walk out on a situation. Symptoms: Hives. Setting: The school where her anxiety began. There are many more options in each category.
Also, , in dialogue and thoughts and everything else, we can show our MC trying to conquer her anxiety. Her efforts are likely to make her even more relatable.
In our first draft or, as in Bird Dog’s case, an expansion, we shouldn’t worry about going over the top. We should write the anxiety as fully as we can and throw in the kitchen sink. When we’re finished and start revising, we’ll have a better idea of what to keep and what to toss.
Here are three prompts:
∙ Your MC, a writer, is polishing the first five pages of her manuscript for submission to agents, and she is questioning every word. Anxiety is taking her over. She reads this blog, but she can’t keep herself from worrying about her readers. Write the scene, varying the ways she expresses her anxiety. Give it a happy ending, though, and create her recovery.
∙ Your MC never worries. He’s part of a team combing a wilderness to find a lost camper. Everything goes wrong, but he’s untroubled. Write the scene, and make him really annoying.
∙ Two characters are preparing–separately–to debate each other. Their prep methods are entirely different. Write the preparation for each of them, and then write the debate.
Have fun, and save what you write!