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!

Opening the Past

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!

Recognizing Your Style–and Everybody Else’s

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!