Pride and Prejudice and Lists

First, if you’re interested, here is a link to an interview with me. When you click on it, the first thing you’ll see is login information. Ignore this and just scroll down to hear the interview:

On February 4, 2016 Ella Hensen wrote, I really love writing fiction and whenever I start writing something I get really excited about what I’m going to do. I’ll write some the first day and then the next day I keep going but by then it’s turned into something I don’t like at all! Most of the time it’s way to similar to a book I have just finished reading that I loved. How do I stop this from happening? Has this happened to anyone else?

Christie Powell wrote back, It seems like Gail has answered similar questions about this. Here’s a good one:

NPennyworth commented, You’re not alone; this has happened to me too many times to count! Whenever it does I look at the story and ask “What don’t I like about this?” Sometimes I want to write a different part of the story, and then I switch to that. Sometimes a character doesn’t make sense and I take a break to do some character building. Sometimes it’s just a slow, but necessary, part of the plot, and I try to just plow through it so I can get to the more exciting parts. I usually find that if I dislike what I’m writing it’s because I’m bored, so I try to shake things up by putting in an action scene or a new character, or switching POV.

If all of the above fails, then I try to give my brain a break for a while. I can switch to writing another story, or do something else entirely. But I eventually sit down and try again. Being a writer isn’t all light bulbs and inspiration; a fair bit of writing is just forcing yourself to write.

I love NPennyworth’s suggestions. And I love her calm and practical tone. No desperation or self-condemnation. Writing is almost always a bumpy ride. We need approaches that help us keep jogging and slogging.

Lately I’ve been thinking about what loosens me up when I write, because, in my opinion, being loose is imperative. When we’re tight nothing new can squeeze out–or at the least our original ideas have a harder time getting past our rigid gate-keepers.

For me, I need a space in my work where nothing counts. In a poem, all I have to do is drop down a couple of lines. As soon as I’ve done that, I’ve disfigured the poem–really! The stanzas no longer descend in an orderly way, and all bets are off. I’ve made a mess, so I might as well play. I can feel my brain relax. I often copy over the lines that don’t satisfy me and try them different ways. Many different ways. The loosening allows me to consider the poem as a whole, too. Maybe the words are fine but the lines aren’t arriving in the right sequence. I try one way, close the poem up again, consider, and, often, start over.

In a novel-in-progress, I toggle over to my notes in order to relax. If what’s troubling me is the way I’ve expressed myself in a paragraph, for instance, I’ll copy the whole thing into my notes. Suppose I don’t think I’m being clear, well, I may rewrite the paragraph in the most basic way I can think of, even if the writing is less than charming. Then I may copy that and revise. If I’m not happy, I start again.

If the problem is bigger than the way I’ve expressed myself in a paragraph, if it’s a plot or character problem, I’ll write notes about that. And often I’ll list possibilities.

Ah, lists! The world’s greatest boon to originality. All great thinkers use them, actually down through history. When the wheel was invented, it was the product of a list scratched into dirt with a stick, like this:
Possible shapes:
isosceles triangle

As history proves, the right solution may not be the last to appear on our list, but it’s the one we most often circle (hah!) back to.

So how can we use a list to move our story from following the course of the last novel we read and loved?

A thread in comments on the last blog concerned Pride and Prejudice and Lydia’s elopement with Mr. Wickham, which ***SPOILER ALERT*** had the eventual effect of uniting Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy. Suppose we’re writing a romance, too, and we adore P&P, as I do, so we make our two star-crossed lovers misunderstand each other, even though the reader knows they’re meant to be together. It’s a contemporary tale, because we’re a tad doubtful that we can be pitch-perfect regarding early nineteenth century England. Our MC Melanie’s family is wacky and can be counted on to say and do precisely the wrong thing at precisely the right moment for maximum trouble. Melanie’s sister Winette has a crush on geeky James, who is a whiz at all things tech and oh-so helpful when anyone’s computer melts down. We’re tempted to make James kidnap Winette, and have Melanie’s opposite number Stefan find her while she’s still alive. But even we realize this is just too derivative. So, how can we use James and Winette to bring Melanie and Stefan together? We make a list:

∙ Stefan discovers that James has hacked into the family’s financial information and has account numbers, passwords, and social security numbers. Stefan brings his discovery to Melanie and never suggests by so much as a sneer that her parents are careless fools who deserve to be swindled. Since we don’t want her rescued (though Austen doesn’t mind), she handles James.

∙ Melanie herself realizes what James is up to. With more courage than caution, she confronts him. He shrugs and says that he did nothing without Winette’s knowledge. If he’s prosecuted, she will be, too. He leaves her at the coffee shop where they met. On the way home, she runs into Stefan, who sees how distraught she is. She tells him what’s happened, and between the two of them, they cook up a way to foil James. In the course of their planning, they come to appreciate each other.

∙ James steals the family service dog, who is the only being who can calm down Melanie’s father when he becomes agitated. Family and friends mobilize to find the dog, and Melanie and Stefan wind up collaborating on the rescue.

∙ This one moves away from James. Despite her flirting, Winette is friendless. After being aloof at a social event, Stefan is kind to her when her schoolmates torment her. Melanie begins to appreciate him.

We can keep going. If I were writing this story, I would, to give myself even more choices. I’d think about Melanie’s family members and come up with a possibility that involves each of them. I’d also consider other characters and other aspects of Melanie’s life, and I’d invent possibilities for Stefan, too. I might even go back to other Austen books and see how she brought matters to a head in them. Then I might adapt one to these circumstances and use it.

Lists can be any length, but it can help to set a minimum number. I may say I want at least seven options. When I get to seven, I can still keep going.

Just one more thing about my process and finding the freedom to develop ideas. When I wrote the possibilities above, I got tight about my list, because I was going to put it out where others could read it, while my lists and my notes are usually private. I had to drop down on my page, away from the bullets where the final ideas would go. Then I could loosen up again. That’s what I mean about how important a safe space is.

Here are three prompts:

∙ You knew this was coming. Add three more possibilities to my list.

∙ Write a scene based on an item on your list or mine.

∙ Write a list of four other ways Jane Austen might have taken P&P. Leave it in the eighteenth century or make it modern. Write a scene from your new plot development. Or do this same thing with a different book.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Aaa! Ha!

First, I’ll hearken back to my recent post about poetry. In my final (sob) class of poetry school, we’ve been assigned a textbook that I think may interest people on the blog who’ve caught the poetry bug. It’s Introduction to Poetry by X. J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia–high school and above–very comprehensive. There are a few poem prompts but not many. The value is in the discussion of all the topics in poetry and the selection of poems, from classic to modern. Also phenomenally expensive, so I’d suggest asking your library to get it for you or buying it used. Try to find the latest edition, which contains the most up-to-date poems.

On January 27, 2016, Bookworm wrote, I need help with some things in my novel. I have it pretty much figured out, but the scenes seem to zoom by. I don’t think my MC is really getting enough challenge in some of the scenes.

I also need some help with a side MC. He’s the main comedian, and I don’t have many jokes and puns for him. I could really use some help to get some good puns and jokes. Can you help me?

First question first. Writer of Magic weighed in with, What I would do to make it more challenging is to go through each sentence and see if you need more detail. Example: Her jeans ripped. Or: The seam on her jeans ripped. Blood seeped out. Sorry for the gore.

I’m all for detail, which does more than add length. Detail puts the reader in the scene. There’s nothing like it to increase tension. What do the jeans rip on? How deep is the cut? How painful? Who sees the event? Is anyone there to help? What else is going on? Does our MC–let’s call her Rose–have time to see how badly injured she is? Is she in danger of passing out from loss of blood? If a lot is happening, we can slow down to a kind of play-by-play.

A scene won’t zoom if we present our details through Rose’s head and heart. What is she thinking? Is she worrying about something even more pressing than bleeding? Is she phobic about blood? What’s her state of mind when the injury happens? Is she angry? At whom? Frightened? Sad? Even happy? Maybe cutting her leg solves some other problem for her. Now she thinks she won’t have to spend a week with her despised cousin. She wonders if she can make the injury worse.

Detail also contributes to humor. Rose’s jeans rip, revealing the laughing frogs on the long underwear her mother makes her wear. A dot of blood seeps through the flannel and reddens a frog’s nose. Can she conceal the whole disaster? What can she wrap around herself? A tablecloth! Can she pull it out without disturbing all the dishes, the way they do in movies?

And how might we challenge our Rose more?

We’re always finding a balance between barriers and abilities, locks and keys. Leaving behind the bleeding situation, let’s say Rose is loyal to Queen Lorraine, but a lot of people are dissatisfied with her rule. Attracted by the noise, Rose joins a crowd surrounding a street speaker who’s inciting the mob to storm City Hall, where the queen’s representatives hold sway. The mayor happens to be away, leaving Rose’s mother, the chief constable, in charge with only three guards to help her. Rose decides she has to persuade the crowd not to attack.

Suppose we want Rose to fail ultimately. The Hall will be attacked, which will propel our plot into its next phase. But we don’t want her to fail quickly. We want to make the most of our dramatic situation.

We might consider what Rose has going for her and what her obstacles are, but let’s start with the obstacles. The anger of the rabble rouser is infectious. He’s a good speaker with valid arguments on his side. The queen’s subjects are tired of a war that’s continued for a decade–although she’s been on the throne for only six months. Many able-bodied people have been forced to become soldiers. A promised school in the town hasn’t been built.

Rose thinks the queen should be given more time. If the throne is overthrown, who will step in? Chaos will follow, and the enemy is sure to take advantage. Rose has made this argument to a few friends, whom she’s persuaded to agree with her. Plus, she knows a lot of the people in the crowd, and she’s well-liked.

Going back to obstacles, she’s soft-spoken. No one will hear her if she speaks up. So we start the scene. Rose clears her throat. “Excuse me.” No one hears. What is she feeling? Thinking? Who’s standing next to her? What’s the weather?

We use these details to create a scene with ups and downs and plenty of challenges for Rose. When one effort fails, she tries something else, seems to make progress until some other upset comes along. We end with her the loser, but she isn’t entirely defeated.

Moving along. When it came to jokes, Writer of Magic asked, What era is this? Then I could probably make up some jokes.

Bookworm answered, The era is modern times, but the action takes place in different dimensions. For example, there’s the real world, then there’s Destiny Forest, and another dimension is Musical Hills. There’s not more than one of the MC though, like a doppelganger.

Humor helped poured in.

From Mary:
What type of bagel can fly?
A plain bagel!!!

What’s brown and sticky?
A stick!

Two man walk into a bar. One turns to the other and says “Ouch.”

“A train just passed by here!”
“How can you tell?”
“It left it’s tracks!”

“Did you get a haircut?”
“No, I got all of them cut.”

If you need more try searching Google.

As for puns I find that they work best in the situation. If the character drinks chicken soup they can say it tastes “fowl.” Fish is always really heavy because it has so many scales. Cheese has many “ Gouda” puns attached, and can be “grate” to use. Horses also have many puns attached. (Behooved is a good word, and people can mention neighbors, both of which can be used in many “tales.”) A mention of eyes can lead to many puns, such as “eye see,” mention of pupil(s) (for teachers or students), and complaints that people will always “lash” out. Cars are “wheely” good, and if you’re getting “tired” of my examples Google can help with some more specific examples. I hope this gives you a few ideas!

These are great! I’d just add that a list of homonyms (words that are spelled and sound the same but have different meanings, like bear) and homophones (words that may be spelled differently but sound the same, like plain and plane in Mary’s pun or bear and bare), which you can google, can be helpful for thinking up puns. Heteronyms (words that are spelled the same but pronounced differently, like bass, the fish, and bass, the low musical pitch) probably won’t be as useful, because our puns will probably crop up in dialogue, but there may be times when we can use them, too. Of course, some puns are pure inspiration, which can arise only from sub-basement Y of our brains, like the joke about the chicken, the frog, and the librarian, which is best said out loud. If you don’t know it, here’s a link: For best effect, sound like a chicken for her lines and like a frog for his (hers? its?).

Here are prompts:

∙ I find it helpful to think of categories when I fool around with puns. So, looking at your googled lists, come up with three puns in each of these categories: food, occupations, and animals.

∙ Remember a time when you were injured: sports injury, clumsy injury (as most of mine have been), kitchen injury–whatever. Not life threatening, because we want to take something with medium intensity and deepen it. Write it and milk it for every smidgen of detail you can dredge up: the moment before the event, how it happened, how it felt and looked, who was there, who said what, what you said and thought, what made it better, what made it worse, plus whatever I’m leaving out. Now move into fiction. Make yourself a character, and make the other people who were there characters, too. If it fits, turn one of them into a villain. By using detail, make this a scene that doesn’t zoom by and that maintains tension.

∙ Injure your MC in your WIP and use some of the moments from your life and your fictionalized version of your life. Write the scene.

∙ Write the scene in which Rose tries to calm the crowd.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Lemme out!–convincingly

I am proud and relieved to announce that the Two Princesses prequel has a title. Alas, the dragons in sales and marketing nixed all other suggestions, including excellent choices from the blog, and I had to cudgel my head again. But finally, I came up with this one, which they like, my editor likes, and I like, and I hope you will like, and which I don’t think I gave you enough information to come up with. Here it is: The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre. Hooray!

So, there’s a lesson in this for all of us: We needn’t seek the perfect title until we have a publisher, because publishers have final say anyway. We can go eponymous and just call our book by the name of our MC and then dig deeper when the time comes.

And, if not a lesson, an idea: To loosen myself up and get out of the title groove I was mired in, I googled “popular fantasy novels for children” and clicked on a selection from Goodreads, which helped me realize that almost anything can be a fine title. Thus freed, my mind started wandering and got me where I needed to go.

Thanks again, many thanks, to all of you who posted title possibilities! I’ll probably ask for your help again.

Now for this week’s post:

On November 20, 2015, Kitty wrote, I need some ideas for a way for my MC to escape a prison cell. However, I would like to avoid anything involving the following:
1. Cliches (air vents and the ol’ fake escape gambit are out).
2. Mary Sue-like abilities (so no “Oh, I just happen to know some obscure physics/chemistry fact that I can totally apply to the situation, plus I can pick locks and dangle from walls). The MC is twelve, so anything that would be obviously beyond the ability/knowledge of a 7th grader is a no-go.
3. Outside help. She has to do it alone. Her friends are in different cells, so she’s not going to get any help from them, or anyone else. And
4. Excessive violence. PG 13 is probably okay. R is probably not. I’ll let you use your best judgement on that one.
5. Deus ex machinas. No “Oh, look, somebody left the door unlocked! Lucky me!”, or “Look, I happen to have a magical door unlocking device with me! I grabbed it when I got kidnapped, but I guess they didn’t notice!”

The cell is modern day with fairly heavy security (though I’m willing to make adjustments on the exact nature of the cell/security system), something that perhaps the CIA or FBI might have at their offices. There probably will be security cameras, though I’m flexible about that one. I don’t need her to escape the whole compound (I already have that planned out), just to get out of the cell she’s stuck in.

NPennyworth suggested: It sounds like the only way she’s getting out is if someone lets her out. Maybe she can use her age to her advantage and trick a guard into taking her out, maybe something like she says she has a stomach bug and pretends to throw up, or insists she needs to go to the bathroom. Once the guard opens the door maybe she could stomp on his foot and incapacitate him, and take it from there.

And Poppie said, I agree with NPennyworth about your escape scene: being let out is the only logical way to get away. I have never written about breakouts, so the only other thing I can recommend, is reading and watching some appropriate books and movies about the subject.

I’m with Poppie, in that research may be useful. We can google “famous prison escapes,” and even try “escapes from juvenile facilities,” since Kitty’s MC is twelve. Then we can mix and match what we come up with to suit our circumstances.

Kitty seems to be after originality in solving her incarceration problem, and the key, in my opinion, to original solutions is character.

Who is our MC? What characteristics that we’ve already established can she use to get herself out? NPennyworth suggests she pretends to throw up to get out of her cell. This becomes more plausible if she has a history of feigning illness to evade going to school, and the reader knows she’s really good at it. She’s discovered ingenious ways to make herself look pale and clammy or turn green or pink with fever. We have her decide which illness will  most likely get her out, possibly make the guards uneasy and unlikely to scrutinize her closely. This can be a lot of fun to write–and to read.

But we can give her other useful qualities. She can be artistic or persuasive or over-the-top charming. Let’s go with artistic. There isn’t much to work with in her cell, but she pulls a few strands of horsehair out of her ratty mattress and fashions a convincing tarantula in the corner. It won’t bear close examination, but from across the cell, it’s a stunner. The reader already knows that the prison is in the desert, so tarantulas aren’t an impossibility. Then she starts screaming. Guard rushes in, stands in the doorway, annoyed, says, “What?” She points. He runs in or runs out, leaves the door open.

This escape, or any escape, will be most believable if our MC has tried once or twice before and failed.

When we use character, the qualities we exploit have to be revealed earlier, when our MC is established. If she becomes artistic in her cell half an hour before she makes the fake spider, the reader is likely to be unconvinced and may shout “Mary Sue!”

In fact, Kitty’s Mary Sue example typifies the problem of the solution that pops out of nowhere. We may be able to pull off a knowledge of obscure physics or chemistry principles if the reader knows she’s a genius in those subjects, and this is established very early in the story. But scientific brilliance plus the ability to dangle from walls, even if set up early, will probably be too much for a reader to buy and may move our MC from a real  girl to a young super-heroine.

Our MC isn’t the only character we can use. If she’s observant (a really handy quality that we can give to almost any MC, along with whatever else we give her), she’ll pay attention to prison routine, the personality of this guard and that and of her fellow prisoners (which Kitty suggests she already knows). She can plan to use the nice guard in one way, the one who does everything by the book in another. Any other characters in her prison life can also be brought in to serve her purpose.

We don’t want to make the escape too easy. In the same way we use our MC’s character to let her escape, we can use her character to cause her to fail in an early attempt or to almost fail in her final successful one. Suppose she’s the spider artist, but she needs her creations to be admired, she may give herself away the first time. The reader will be terrified for her. An added benefit of an MC’s flaw is that it will counteract any Mary Sue’ishness the reader may have detected in her.

In the same way we use character we can also use the prison setting to develop the escape–although character will usually be part of it. Here again research may help. We can google prisons: maps, routines, personnel. It may be useful to search on well-run prisons and badly run prisons. Think about how your MC can use what you discover. Again, we need to set this up as early as possible so that whatever she turns to her advantage doesn’t seem too convenient to the reader. If there happens to be an abandoned aqueduct, for example, just outside the prison walls, our MC and the reader need to know about it before escape planning begins.

A lovely aspect of writing is that time inside our story doesn’t behave for us as it does for our characters. We can realize as we’re writing her escape that she doesn’t realize a crucial fact she needs to realize. Zip! We jump back three days and twenty pages and sew the fact in seamlessly so it’s there when she has to have it.

Obviously, these strategies apply not only to prison breaks, but also to any pickle our MC may find herself in.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Design an escape for a character using another quality other than artistic ability. Make one up or pick one or use one of these: persuasiveness, charm, taciturnity, short attention span, high energy. Write the escape.

∙ Rewrite the scene, but this time make it fail because of a character flaw. Keep her alive, though, and have her try again. If you haven’t before, bring in secondary characters and use their personalities in the scheme.

∙ Write an escape in which the prison itself, its routine or layout, possibly its computer system, is crucial to success.

Have fun, and save what you write!

You shout tomayto, I’m too shy to whisper tomahto, let’s call the whole story off

Does this title mean anything to anyone but me?

Before I go on to the post, I found out about this through poetry school: If you’re sixteen and older, you’re eligible, and there seems to be no fee to apply and a nice sum if you win. If you do win, be sure to let us know! Here’s the link: Good luck!

On May 28, 2015 Bug wrote, One of my main characters is extremely different from me. (For example, with Myers-Briggs, I’m an INFP, and he’s an ESFP.) It’s really sort of hard for me to write him sometimes because he’s so…not at all me, I guess. I guess my problem is that I have to write a person who’s very much a people-person, while I’m not (I definitely LIKE being around people, I’m just sort of shy a lot.) Does anyone have any advice for that?

The Myers-Briggs is fun to take for yourself and your characters! I couldn’t resist doing it for myself and for my MC in the prequel I just finished. The test is free, and you find out the names of famous people who share your or your character’s personality type. Also, suggestions are made about careers you may be well suited for, which I would take with a gallon of salt. None of my career options as an ENFJ is writer (Bug’s is, by the way), and none of my famous people is a writer. Actually, I’d take the whole thing with a gallon of salt, in that it isn’t helpful to regard an online personality test as the final word on who we are. Still it’s fun.

Even if you don’t take the test, you may want to read about it, because I’m going to use Myers-Briggs terms in the post, so a little knowledge will be helpful, but I will explain as I go along.

Bug, it’s great that you know all this about your character (and yourself). Now that I know I’m an ENFJ, although just moderately or slightly on everything, and my MC Perry is definitively an ISTJ, I realize how different we are. In other words, she’s an introvert, and I’m outgoing. Feelings influence my decision-making more than they influence hers, because she’s more of a step-by-step plodder. But I didn’t have much trouble writing her, because I knew, and the reader will, too, how she came to be what she is. So that’s one tip: our character’s history, whether as backstory or as played out in the plot, will reveal clues to his behavior.

For example, let’s imagine Harper, a child who’s adopted. She’s wildly intuitive, but her adoptive parents are cautious and logical. If she wants to get her way about anything, she has to defend her choice in terms they’ll understand. Gradually, necessity moves her into their camp, and her sixth sense goes to sleep. In our story she gets older and has to make a career decision. She lists pros and cons; she researches qualifications; she interviews people who are employed in the kinds of work she’s considering. One of her friends asks, “But which one would you like better?” And she answers, “That’s what I’m trying to figure out?” Her friend presses her: “Which one lifts your heart just to think about.” She frowns. “I don’t know what you mean.” Because we know how she got there, we know how she’ll take action and respond in lots of situations. If she feels attracted to someone, she won’t let that feeling take over. She’ll watch her crush and make judgments. Then, maybe, she’ll move forward.

Or, imagine that Bug’s extrovert, Manny, grows up in a family of extroverts. If he doesn’t push himself forward, he’ll get lost, so he does. Or, let’s imagine a more difficult childhood for him. When he’s a baby, his parents flee their home kingdom because of persecution, but they don’t speak the language. Manny, however, learns both languages. Even as a child, he has to represent his family in the new land. His parents give him responsibilities beyond his years, and he has to be effective with adults. Whether or not he starts with an extrovert bent, that part of him is pushed to develop. This knowledge helps us write him.

Addie in The Two Princesses of Bamarre is very shy, and there’s nothing in her past to explain it. I did have trouble with her because, although I’m only moderately extroverted, I still am. At the beginning I wrote Addie as so paralyzed by her shyness that she was almost catatonic. I went to my shy critique buddy, Joan, for advice, and she helped me dial back the paralysis. So outside help from someone who is more like your character than you are may be helpful.

And let me offer you shy ones (many writers are) some info about extroverts (moderate ones, anyway), as represented by me, which you are welcome to use in developing your characters. I like gatherings, even if I don’t know many people. I may start off feeling shy and nervous, but I steel myself. I’ll stand at the edge of a group and listen for a little while. I usually get a vibe. If they’re willing to include a newcomer, the circle widens and people smile. If that doesn’t happen, I move on. When I find a receptive group, I listen and chip in if I have something to say, but staying on topic, because I’m the interloper. After five or ten minutes, I may introduce a new idea that particularly interests me. If others are fascinated, too, I feel even more comfortable, and the conversation develops. In big groups, social gatherings where networking is happening, groups fragment, because most people want to touch more than one base. When the group falls apart, I move on and repeat.

At the buffet or bar (where I get seltzer with a splash of cranberry juice, which looks pretty and vaguely alcoholic and tastes good), there’s a chance to meet people one-on-one. If people are waiting in a line, I may have time to get a little acquainted with the person ahead or behind me, which can be nice.

Three things I never do:

∙ Hold forth and deliver monologues about myself or pass myself off as an expert on anything. I’m more likely to be asking questions than asserting anything.

∙ Worry about making a fool out of myself. There’s always that risk, and I’ve swallowed my foot more than once, but I haven’t died, and usually a funny story is the result.

∙ Rehearse what I want to say before saying it or go over it for flaws. That road leads to silence and feeling alone, because even if I finally approve my contribution, the conversation has moved on. I plunge in.

Internally, I’m irrepressible, which fuels my extroversion. If I care about a topic and have ideas, I think I have an obligation to share, to spur conversation and even to create fun.

My extroversion is fueled by enormous curiosity about people, which I bet I share with many shy folk. The difference, I think, is that I’m not restrained from coming out with it. I mean well, but occasionally I cross into nosiness, which may be welcomed–or not!

What about the shy among you? Any tips about how to write shy characters?

If our opposite character type has to act, we can list possibilities, starting with what we would do, what an opposite action might be, what our outgoing cousin Naomi would do, what Anne of Green Gables would do, and the possibilities that just pop to mind. If nothing seems right, we keep going with more possibilities.

It will get easier as the story progresses, I believe. Once our MC performs like an extrovert, we’ll see him at work and come up with more extroverty actions for him the next time. We’ll also discover how he reacts to other characters, whose natures are established. How is he with a shy friend? How with his brother who’s more out there even than he is?

Here are three prompts:

∙ The Match-Made-In-Heaven dating service puts people together by similar Myers-Briggs scores. Your MCs, Michael and Addison, are identical shy ISTJ’s (Introverted, Sensing, Thinking, Judging). Write their first date. Write the journal entry of one of them afterward. Decide if they ever want to see each other afterward. Keep going with the relationship if you like, which can go in any direction. They can fall in love or become opponents in a struggle that has galactic proportions.

∙ The Opposites-Attract dating service takes the opposite approach. This time, Jordan (INFP-Introverted, Intuitive, Feeling, Perceiving) is matched with Peyton (ESTJ-Extroverted, Sensing, Thinking, Judging). Write the date and the journal entry. Keep going if you like.

∙ Let’s work with Harper, our MC who’s methodical, careful, and cautious. But, remember, her nature before she blended into her family was intuitive. Put her in a situation where being methodical and careful land her in trouble. Her intuition has to wake up. Write the situation and the story.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Objective: objectives

On March 26, 2015, Kenzi Parsons wrote, How do you brainstorm a non-cliche plot when you have the characters and situation already? I find I have a really hard time coming up with a plot if I already have characters–I LOVE my characters but struggle with the story. Any ideas?

These two responses came in:

Erica Eliza: Look at the relationships and the conflicts that will arise between characters. Sort through other story ideas that never took off because they weren’t big enough to carry a whole book by themselves, and see how your characters would handle them.

Tracey Dyck: If you have your characters in place, they can help drive your plot. Look at their individual goals (which might conflict with each other!) and what obstacles, both personal and physical, might stand in their way. The Rafe-Stella situation Mrs. Levine invented in this post kind of touches on that. (March 18, 2015)

Kenzi Parsons answered: These are all great!! Reading these, I think my problem is that my character doesn’t have an objective to motivate the plot. Huh… I’d never thought of that before! How do y’all come up with goals/objectives for your characters if you created them before the plot?

More ideas followed:

carpelibris (Melissa Mead): I almost always come up with character before plot. (I have a dickens of a time with plot!) Usually who the character is helps determine what she wants, whom she hangs out with, what she will or won’t do, etc., and the plot grows out of that. For example, a lot of my characters are loners/misfits, which tends to make them either want to fit in, stand out, or get out of where they are.

Tracey Dyck: What are their strengths and weaknesses? What are their desires–what they want more than anything? What do they want almost as badly, something that may run contrary to the primary desire? Could be situational, personal, etc. Maybe one person wants to feel needed, another wants to gain confidence, someone else wants to fix a relationship, and yet another person wants to stop an impending disaster.

These are wonderful.

In case Kenzi Parsons’ concerns weren’t completely resolved, here are some more thoughts:

It’s hard to believe any idea is good if we’re worried about cliches. My entire writing career–my whole body of work– wouldn’t exist if that were much on my mind. A Cinderella story? Fairies? Dragons? Princesses? They’ve been done repeatedly. I’d be sunk!

We all build on old ideas. We have to. Originality comes from what we do with those tired tropes. Yes, sadly, it is possible to write a story that sounds like a dozen other stories, and we don’t want to do that. My strategy for avoiding such a fate is notes, and within notes, lists. It’s a strategy that can help in plot-from-character creation.

Let’s start with what we’ve come up for our character, whom we’ll call Tamara. On the good side, she’s loyal, kind, and funny. On the bad, she has a one-track mind. When something captures her attention, all else sinks in importance. At those times, she’s irritable or even angry with anyone who tries to divert her. She has curly hair, long fingers, a wide smile, and small eyes. Kenzi Parsons may have gone much further than this, but for our purposes we have enough to get started.

We review Tamara’s attributes and think what her objectives might be. Her one-track mind suggests possibilities, so in our notes for this story we list what she might be obsessed about right now, and we keep in mind all the other things we know about her. We pledge to ourselves that we’re going to come up with at least ten possibilities, and, further, that we won’t judge any of them. Nothing is stupid or cliched when we write a list:

∙ She’s raising money for a daycare center in her town.

∙ She’s working on a stand-up comedy routine.

∙ She’s determined to rescue her best friend from a bad romantic relationship.

∙ She’s researching plastic surgery to make a person’s eyes bigger. Once she finds out what she needs, she’s going to devote herself to making it happen.

∙ She’s preparing to join the army (real army or fantasy army).

∙ She’s preparing to rescue the child hostages from their captors in the warring kingdom of Kuth.

∙ She’s developing plans for a flying machine.

∙ She’s trying to save from extinction a species of tiny frogs that still exist only in her rural county.

∙ She’s deep and dark into magic books to cure her brother of the mysterious condition that caused him to stop speaking.

∙ She’s plotting revenge against a relative who sabotaged her frog project.

There. Ten. But if nothing pleases us we can go for fifteen.

Tied up in her obsessions are objectives. She wants to succeed! We can move the plot forward by placing obstacles in her path, some that come from within her, some from circumstances, and some from our other characters, who may want her to fail or may bungle helping her. We can list possible obstacles.

I chose her one-track mind to concentrate on, but I could have picked another of her qualities, although long fingers might be hard, but I bet we could do it. Anyway, her loyalty is suggestive, too. Here’s a prompt: Think about where her loyalties lie. List ten possibilities. Then think about how they might morph into objectives. Create a story around one possibility.

Kenzi Parsons has created more characters. If we have more, we can keep them in mind as we invent our lists, and we can give them the list treatment, too, remembering as we do that their objectives need to relate to Tamara’s in helpful or unhelpful ways.

I love lists. If you read the notes for any of my books, you’d find lists cropping up every few pages (I often have over 200 pages of notes for a novel).

After we we’ve come up with our objectives and have thought of obstacles, we start imagining how they might play out in scenes. And we’re off with a starter plot!

More prompts:

∙ Pick one–or more–of Tamara’s obsessions and use it in a story.

∙ I decided to go with Melissa Mead’s misfit idea and imagined ten ways in which Tamara might be different. Pick one and use it in a story. Melissa Mead already suggested a few objectives, and you may think of more. Here are the ten ways:

  1. She has only one arm (with those long fingers)
  2. She has the same genetic condition that caused Abraham Lincoln to be so tall and ??? At the age of twelve she’s a foot taller than everyone she knows.
  3. Her family have been farmers for centuries. She lives in a farming community. Nobody cares about anything but the size of pigs and pumpkins. She hates all of it. She has a brown thumb, and the livestock hate her.
  4. She has a different fashion sense than everyone else. She looks wrong on every occasion.
  5. She’s way smarter than everyone else around her, off-the-charts smarter.
  6. She’s the stupidest in her family and her school.
  7. She can’t pronounce the long i.
  8. Her brain is oddly wired. Psychologists keep diagnosing her with an alphabet soup of acronyms, but nothing really fits.
  9. She sees other people as numbers. People who appear as long numbers scare her, but she feels close to people who have a 9 in their number. (Look! This is the ninth in my list! What a coincidence!)
  10. She’s an identical twin, but although she and her sister look exactly alike, that’s where the similarities end.

Have fun, and save what you write!


A short interim announcement: We’re snatching the blog away from Blogspot and moving it entirely into my website, so that people who don’t have gmail accounts can comment, too. This is an experiment for now. My worry is that unwelcome comments may come in. I’ll delete them, of course, but they’ll be there until I check. If that happens even once, I may moderate comments before they get posted, as I do on the Guest Book, or I may go back to Blogspot.

You’ll find differences, and I want to know what you think. Please say if you’re happy or unhappy, because that will make a difference in how we go forward. My feelings won’t be hurt if you say something negative.

If you signed up as a follower of the blog, your follower-status will move over, so you won’t have to do it again.

I’m eager to hear from you as you give the new blog site a spin. And, as always, I look forward to your writing ideas and questions.