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!

Fresh plots for sale

On July 5, 2013, Athira Abraham wrote, How can I come up with original plots? I’ve searched up on the Internet, and I know that you should write the story you want to read, but I’m sick and tired of reading books on quests, rescuing, riddles, forbidden love, escaping, or revenge, though it seems like all books and stories and plots fall under these categories and more. But I want my plot to be more enticing to the readers that read it and to myself. I want it to be new, original, and unique. 

I do like quests and escaping an evil enchanter etc., but its so common. How can I accomplish this?

This reassuring response came from Michelle: I think that perhaps the reason that these topics are used so much is because they’re popular. For many people, these adventures are so exciting and suspenseful that they never get boring. Of course, the success of a book depends on its author. If you feel bored with these topics, don’t use them. There’s a good chance that readers won’t be interested if you’re not.

Write about what you think is interesting. As for the uniqueness, I don’t think there is any advice to give. It’s a hard question. But, I do think that every plot, even original plots, have piggybacked off others at one point or another. If you like quests and an escaping evil enchanter, ponder those topics. And eventually, ideas will come. Good or bad, they always do. By the way, if you’ve done research on the internet, this means you’re a serious writer. You have an imagination. And if you have an imagination, there’s nothing to worry about.

On my bookshelves are two books about plot, bought a long time ago, probably out of desperation. Interestingly, I just looked on Amazon and discovered that neither author seems to ever have published any fiction!

The point of one of the books, which is similar to Michelle’s comment, is that there are only a few possible plots. I agree with Michelle and the book on this: a limited number of plot types. But character possibilities, situations, settings, are limitless. Complete originality may be impossible, but uniqueness is inevitable. Except for plagiarizing, no one writes exactly the same story, comes up with the same dialogue or identical characters or identical anything.

We all, I think, have dreams for our stories; we hope that we’ll create a marvel, which we may actually achieve. But not by concentrating on wished-for greatness. Once I sit down to write and start spinning my tale, I need to put those hopes aside to concentrate on my words and my story. If I think about how stupendous I want my book to be, I freeze. Guaranteed.

Having said that, as an example of pretty significant originality, I’ll put forward The Wheel on the School by Meindert DeJong, which I just read, and which won the Newbery in the 1950’s and is, in my opinion, a tour de force in plotting. It’s too young, I’m pretty sure, for almost all of you who read the blog, and it may seem old-fashioned. But I recommend it highly, because it has a lot to teach us about plotting, and I’m sure I’m going to learn from it. There’s little at stake, only persuading two storks to nest in the Dutch village of Shora (so it’s a quest plot), but the tension stays high, and DeJong varies carrying out the quest with astonishing ingenuity. Repeatedly, when I thought the problem was solved, he came up with something new to keep me reading. Besides, it’s a charming book, and, here and there, throughout are marvelous brush-and-ink drawings by Maurice Sendak. If you do read it, or if you already have, I’d love to know what you think.

Athira Abraham, sounds like you may be tired of the kinds of books you usually read. Maybe your writing would be re-energized by reading outside your usual preferences. I don’t know how old you are, but when I was in high school I went through a phase when I read mostly nineteenth century Russian novels, and then I moved on to other kinds of novels. I also read a lot of plays, and several were by George Bernard Shaw. Mark Twain is another favorite, and he’s so unsentimental that he’s cleansing. I adore A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Or, in the world of young adult literature, I admire the work of Virginia Euwer Wolfe boundlessly, and my favorite is The Mozart Season. Short story collections may be useful too, because you come across a lot of plots in a single book. A librarian or a knowledgeable bookseller may have more suggestions.

You may already know all these books and authors; you may read short stories regularly, but the point still is that stepping outside your usual preferences may give you new ideas and may suggest approaches to plot you haven’t tried before.

Another source of unpredictable plots is life, where the unpredictable meets the random meets the intentions of people. They combine and recombine, and we find meaning. We shape what happens to us into story. We can use family stories as the basis of our fiction. I’ve mentioned before that my book Dave at Night is an invented version of my father’s childhood in an orphanage. Tucked into the story are fragments of truth and the real-life personality of my dad. Soon I’m going to start reading another book about the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, my ancestors among them. I’m hoping to find a true story I can fictionalize, because something that really happened often has a surprising shape. You may find something in history that you’d like to turn into a story. Or a piece in the news. Or something that’s going on in your community.

When I think about turning fairy tales into novels, I look for leaps of logic, anything that doesn’t make complete sense, which usually leads me to exploring my characters’ motivations. Why does the prince fall in love with the maiden in “Toads and Diamonds”? What’s up with the cat in “Puss ‘N’ Boots”? Why is he so willing to help a master who was about to eat him? The answers usually take my plots in surprising directions.

In The Wheel on the School, author DeJong uses not only his characters, but also the weather, the dike (since this is Holland), and a bell tower to twist his story.  Oh, I hope you read it! As we write, we can think, What else can I bring in? What’s handy in my story that I haven’t exploited yet?

Here are two prompts:

• Begin your story with the achievement of a quest. The magic statue has been found at great cost. The heroes and heroines are celebrating, and it all falls apart. The statue doesn’t do what it was supposed to, or someone drops it, and it shatters.

• Here’s a little germ of an incident from my girlhood, which you can use as a story seed. A friend and I read a book in which the heroine’s name was a variant of the name of another one of our friends. We announced to her that she had to go by that nickname from then on. I won’t say what followed. That’s your story. Think conflict. You can go small and keep the tale to the confines of the friendship. Or you can widen it. You can imagine that the three are members of powerful families (as we definitely were not!), and more people get involved. Whichever route you take, the point is that, since it derives from reality, the story is unlikely to follow a predictable path.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Building on the legacy

On November 4, 2012, Ellie Mayerhofer wrote on my website, I was wondering if you had any advice for a story I’m writing. It’s a twist on Red Riding Hood, but I’m including at least two other fairy tales in it. I have read several versions of RRH, and seen a few too. I’m trying to write something completely original, but sometimes I feel like the story is too much like other versions of RRH. Is there any way I can be sure that it is completely original and not too much like other versions? It is based on the fairy tale, but I want it to be totally different than anything else I’ve read/seen. 

Also, with Red Riding Hood (I’ve named her Rosaly), I want her to be ‘fierce’ (for lack of a better word-she’s a hunter in a really dangerous forest-the one with the wolf-to provide food, she helps defend herself and her Granny from attacks from the wolf {the wolf is NOT a werewolf}) but also funny, and when she decides she trusts someone she is really loyal and well, trusting of them. The only family she has left is her Granny, and she is strongly defensive of those she considers family/friends. However, I am having trouble showing all sides of her (complex) personality. Any advice???

Ellie had another question, too, which I’ll get to next week.

Several questions are rolled up in this one. First, originality, which I’ve discussed before on the blog (check out the old posts by clicking on the label). I doubt that complete originality is possible, but if the impossible were achieved, I further doubt complete originality would be understood by readers. Writers and readers build on what went before. We take stories in and manufacture new stories based on our experience of the ones we know. The stories we read and hear are simple when we’re very young children. Then as we mature, our idea of what’s possible expands. Oh! we discover, a story can be this, too, and that, too. Each added complexity builds on what went before.

Rather than complete originality, I’m hoping in my writing to expand the range a little, so that someone else can build on what I’ve done. We writers stand on the shoulders of our predecessors, building acrobatic writing towers.

In our search for the new, we want to avoid two pitfalls that are the reverse of originality. The first is infringing on someone’s copyright, which can happen if our plot hews too close to someone else’s or if our characters are too much like another writer’s, or, of course, if we plagiarize – copy sentences and paragraphs verbatim without mentioning the source. I’m not a copyright specialist, and copyright is complicated. My words above are vague: too close or too much like. How much is too much? How close is too close? The courts decide.

For the poor writer, unless you’re deliberately appropriating somebody else’s work, you’re probably fine. If you’re making an effort to be as original as you can, I don’t think you need to worry. But, for extra safety, when I’m using a fairy tale, I avoid reading (or watching) contemporary versions because I don’t want another writer’s take sliding into my subconscious and exiting, unnoticed, through my fingertips.

To be sure, confine your reading to fairy tale adaptations that are old. I’d say (remember, I’m not a copyright attorney) 110 years old and you’re home free. I go to the Andrew Lang fairy tale collections which are for certain in the public domain. Public domain means that they’re no longer copyright protected; they’re out in the world, and anyone can use them.

The second pitfall is being too predictable, cliched. The reader can tell what’s going to happen next because she’s read so many stories just like ours. Not that our new story violates anyone’s copyright, just that events play out according to expectation. For example, if a hard-luck child falls in with a crotchety old codger, I’d put good money down that the codger will turn out to have a heart of gold and that the two will save each other. If said codger dies at the end but the child has gained enough strength and wisdom from him to succeed in life, I win double.

As we gain story experience we start to recognize these cliche patterns and we can avoid them, either by creating stories that don’t follow the format or by going against expectation. If the codger turns out to be fundamentally horrible, the reader will be thrown off balance in a good way and our story will be energized. When, as readers, we feel that a story is original, I think it’s usually because we’re surprised. The story elements are there but they’re combined in fresh ways.

My favorite strategy for avoiding a cliched plot is to list possibilities for what can come next in my story, and I don’t settle for my first idea. Generally I write several ideas and then get stuck. I stare out my window and rush back to my desk when a couple more arrive. I write them down and get stuck again. Repeat process. Usually one of the latecomers will work in my story and surprise my readers.

Characters can be key to creating that sense of originality. In the RRH tale, an interesting Rosaly will help, but so will a grandmother who goes against type. In versions I know (including my own), authors have had a field day with the wolf, whose character is central to the tale. And in a novel, naturally, there will be others who can amaze the reader.

When we think about our characters – maybe we fill out a character questionnaire like the one I provide in Writing Magic – we may come up with a list of traits, which don’t become real until we’re writing the story and putting our character into situations. What we have from Ellie for Rosaly are these characteristics: fierce, funny, loyal, and trusting of the people who are close to her. So when we start writing we want to put her into situations that will reveal her this way.

For example, she’s out hunting, hiding on the edge of a meadow. The wind is right for her, and an unsuspecting buck starts grazing. She has a clear shot. As she nocks her arrow, she says under her breath, “Such a beautiful creature. Too bad taxidermy hasn’t been invented yet.” And she lets fly. We’ve now met her unsentimental sense of humor (and mine). If the animal she’s shooting happens to be a tiger rather than a deer and the same things happen (except for the grazing), we’ve also encountered her fierceness. She isn’t rattled in the face of a tiger, and she can even get off a joke.

Of course, the incidents that reveal Rosaly’s character also need to move the story forward. Maybe we see her courage and her humor as she saves her grandmother from both a snake and a nosy neighbor. And so forth. We look for situations that will bring her qualities to the fore. Coincidentally, they should also demonstrate the grandmother’s character. Is she burying her head under the pillow in an ineffective attempt to escape the snake, or chattering all unaware of it, or reaching for her rifle, but Rosaly gets there first?

Here are three prompts:

• I’ve laid out the cliche of the grumpy old man and the homeless child and suggested one way to write against it. Think of three more ways. Pick one and write the story.

• This is the opposite of the advice I gave above, to stay away from contemporary fairy tale adaptations when you’re thinking of doing one of your own. I hope you’ll try this anyway, just this once. The Andrew Lang books are available for free online. Here’s a link to The Blue Fairy Book, which I think has the best known tales: Read a fairy tale that you know in more than one version. List the major plot developments and characters for the Lang version. Then make the same list for at least one contemporary adaptation. Feel free to use “Cinderella” and Ella Enchanted if you like. Now think of a third way to go, your own take on events. List the characters and plot points. Next, naturally, write the story.

• These traits are ingrained in our MC: brainy, argumentative, kind, and impulsive. Make her the heroine of “Beauty and the Beast” or another fairy tale of your choosing and develop incidents that reveal these characteristics while also moving the story along.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Unoriginal sin

On March 22, 2012, Inkling wrote, My book is the same genre as Lord of the Rings, and I’m having trouble being original. All books of the fantasy genre are takeoffs (not sure if this is the right word) of LOTR because Tolkien created the genre, and I’m afraid of my book being just another takeoff. The plot isn’t the same (far from it) and I’ve tried to add big differences, such as my Elves mainly being samurai-ish unlike most fantasy books where Elves are pretty peaceful, but I’m still afraid of not being original. I’d let my dad read it (his picture is under the definition of blunt), but most of the book is still in my head since I tend to plan my stuff out before I write. Can you help me???

I’m not sure I agree that Tolkien invented fantasy as a genre, although he certainly was a major figure and has influenced lots of writers. I just looked at a Wikipedia article, and here’s the link, that discusses the roots of fantasy, which go back to antiquity. The article defines modern fantasy as taking place in an invented world beyond the ordinary or tucked into the ordinary. It credits Tolkien as the founder of the sub-genre of epic fantasy. Maybe, although I think there are Arthurian tales that are pretty epic.

Originality is at least as slippery a topic as the origins of fantasy. I wrote a post that also addresses the subject, which I suggest you visit. Just click on the label Originality. Then come back because I have a few more thoughts.

First off, there’s the question of outright infringement, that is, appropriating someone else’s creativity. We’re in danger of that if we copy word for word or if we put another author’s characters into our stories, not merely their names but also their essences. Fanfiction routinely uses other author’s characters, which I think is okay (I’m not a lawyer) when the writer is open about it and not profiting.

Even without infringing we can be unoriginal. If our story revolves around the rediscovery of a lost object of great power we may be in danger. LOTR isn’t the only example of this. Think of the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark and even stories about the search for the Holy Grail, and there must be many more. Then suppose the forces of good and the forces of evil are both vying to get to it first. You can write the rest in your head. Many struggles, many battles, and good wins out but at great cost.

But we can take this framework and still be original. Our characters can be so unexpected that they surprise the reader at every turn. We can spoof the prototype and exaggerate everything until the reader is laughing so hard he’s gasping for air.

In your example, Inkling, why do your characters have to be elves? If you’re worried about originality, why not invent a new kind of creature with a samurai sort of culture? Maybe your creatures have long heads and short bodies and their limbs are extraordinarily flexible. In my Disney fairy books I came up with tiffens, who are smaller than people and whose ears are thin and floppy like elephant ears and who debate everything and accomplish little beyond banana farming.

In writing there are a zillion candidates for fretting, and worry about originality may just be one of them. Writing  a quest, say, or a conflict between good and evil doesn’t mean you’re unoriginal. There must be thousands of novels that involve one or the other or both. Some are tired and predictable, but many many  take a fresh approach. Both are archetypal plot structures that probably will never get used up.

But if you’re still worrying, go through your story or review your conception of it. In every spot where you’re unsure, list at least five other possible ways to go. See if one of them pleases you more than your first choice. But also keep in mind that your fears very likely are exaggerated. You’re you and not this other author. Your choices will be your own. Your uniqueness will infuse your tale.

Oddly enough, another place to go for originality is real life. I wrote in an early blog post that when I want to describe a new character, in particular a character character, like a character actor, not beautiful or handsome, I like to look at photographs or portrait paintings from the art books on my shelves. Seeing actual faces moves me beyond the standard elements like hair and eye color, complexion, smile, into shape of upper lip, length of jaw line, forehead furrows – elements I wouldn’t have thought of otherwise. Likewise, the real life attitudes and struggles of actual personalities involve so many variables and quirks that we can never run out of ideas. We can recast the efforts of a friend to get along with a sibling as a the challenge of a new initiate to establish herself in society of warrior butterfly hunters while hanging on to the actual idiosyncratic approach our friend takes.

Here are four prompts:

∙ Invent a new species of creature different from elves, ogres, giants, fairies, and the like. Imagine that their habitat, which may not be a forest (a forest is unoriginal), is threatened. Invent a character who is such a creature. What happens? Write it!

∙ Retell “Beauty and the Beast,” setting it in the future and making all the characters robots.

∙ Turn something difficult, a struggle in your life or in the life of someone you know into an epic. For example, from my life, finishing Beloved Elodie was tough. If I were going to dramatize it, I might cast my editor and my critique buddy as guardian angels battling along with me and I’d incorporate aspects of their personalities into the story. There could be a swamp, a mountain, certainly a desert. Maybe a mine would need to be explored or a tunnel dug.

∙ As an exercise, which may turn into something more, chart out the story of LOTR. At each plot point, imagine other directions the story might have gone. For example, what if Sam had chosen not to go with Frodo? Write what might have happened. Keep going. Suppose Sam had gone along, but Strider wasn’t at the inn in Bree? What then? And so on. If you get to a point that intrigues you, write a new beginning that plunged your characters into this fix, replace the cast with your own creations, and keep going. You’ve got a new, original story on your hands.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Your Way

Before I get to the post topic, I have a request.  Right now my only website is on the larger HarperCollins website.  There’s a link to it on this page, below on the right, called “Official Website,” which it is, and many thanks to Harper for creating it.  However, my husband and I are planning a separate, new site.  (I’ll continue the blog, although it may move and I’ll announce the change and you won’t get lost.)  So, I have some questions and I may have more as we progress:  Do you visit author websites?  If you do and when you do, what’s the reason?  What do you want in a site?  What would you want on my site?  (We don’t yet know what’s technically possible.)  What do you like in sites you’ve visited?  What do you dislike?  Have any sites left you feeling frustrated or disappointed or annoyed?  Why?  And if there’s anything else you’d like to tell me about author websites, please do.

On April 8, 2010, Jen wrote, How can you tell when your story is sounding too familiar, like from something you’ve already written, or something you’ve read. I don’t want to be stealing any ideas from anyone, but sometimes when I write, the story starts to sound much of a muchness to what I’m reading, or at least parts of what I’m writing. I don’t do this on purpose, but still it happens. Or I’ll use a similar plot twist that I thought was entertaining. I also enjoy suspense, and like to use that extremely in my writing. But I want my story to be fresh, and don’t want to bore the reader in the first chapter, because it’s a previously used idea. (Or because I’m taking too long to jump into the plot. Or I jump into the plot too fast!) I like the concept of parallel universes, or doors between different realms, but it’s been taken many times. How do we make an old idea still new and exciting? I don’t have a problem with coming up with ideas. I have many, many story ideas, but it’s just a few that sound unoriginal.
Last December 9th, I wrote a post about predictability, and I don’t want to repeat what I said then, so I suggest you take a look.

When I wrote Ella Enchanted, I kept worrying about a sequence of four words that I thought I might have lifted from a song.  Turned out I hadn’t.  My four words were different, but even if they had been the same it wouldn’t have mattered.  They were just four ordinary words.  None of them was supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, which might really have caused me trouble.  Sometimes we (I) worry too much.

Writing is imitating.  We imitate life and books and movies.  Being a good imitator is valuable for a writer, maybe essential.  Also when I was writing Ella Enchanted, I reread Jane Austen, and started sounding like her on the page, and my critique buddies asked me what was going on, and I had to deliberately quit.

Here’s a prompt:  Read ten pages of Jane Austen (or more if you can’t put her down).  Pay attention to how she structures her sentences.  Write or rewrite a page in your current story imitating her voice.

Or pick a different writer with a distinctive voice, maybe Mark Twain or Charlotte Bronte or James M. Barrie, and imitate him or her.  Try more than one if you’re up to it.  This is excellent practice, because it makes you a more flexible writer and more aware of word choice, sentence and paragraph shape and length, approaches to dialogue, and every other aspect of bringing a scene to life.

Before I started to write the first book in the Disney Fairies series, Fairy Dust and the Quest for the Egg, I reread Barrie’s Peter Pan.  My intention was to approximate his style in my book, but I couldn’t do it; he’s such a supple writer; however, I noticed that he used the expression “of course” a lot, so I threw in many repeats of “of course” and hoped they would convey the flavor.  I just looked at his book again a minute ago and noticed that he used semicolons frequently; hence this sentence and the one before it.

Imitation is not plagiarism.  You shouldn’t copy another writer’s exact words into your stories, at least not more than four of them!  Plagiarism is unethical.

Having said that, actual copying isn’t a bad exercise, as long as that’s all it is, an exercise.  When I wrote The Fairy’s Mistake, I had never written a chapter book before, and my editor sent me samples of other chapter books.  Before I started writing my own I typed out one of Paula Danziger’s Amber Brown books – every word! – to see how she did it.

Here’s another prompt::  Copy a page of a book you love.  Have you learned anything?

Ideas can’t be copyrighted, only the expression of an idea in words.  Still, we want to be original.  I recently read a book that, in one aspect only, reminded me of Holes by Louis Sachar.  I love Holes, and I liked this other book, but I wished the author had thought of something else in this single area, or had at least referred to Holes.  If the main character had said something like, My life was just like Stanley Yelnats’s, I would have been happy, because the similarity wouldn’t have seemed sneaky.

A book that does a masterful and open job of connecting to another book is this year’s Newbery winner, When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead, which builds on an earlier Newbery, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle.  Art builds on the art that went before.  We take the old and rework it into something new, and Rebecca Stead did this ingeniously.

(By the way, When You Reach Me is historical fiction that takes place in New York City in the 1970s when the city was much less safe than it is now.  I hope you’ll read the book if you haven’t already, but I don’t want you to get the wrong picture of present-day New York.)

If you’d like to take your main character into an alternate universe, you can.  But you want to create your own alternate universe and your own way into it and not remake Oz and a tornado.  How to do this?  One way is to start from scratch with questions:  Am I writing a funny story or a sad one or a total tragedy?  Am I writing a mystery?  A funny story, for example, will call for a different, goofier universe than a serious story.

What kind of characters inhabit this world?  Fairies?  Dragons?  Philosopher eagles?  A combo of different sorts of creatures?  People?

Who is your main character who enters as a visitor or an escapee?  Maybe she isn’t human.  She may be an animal or a plant that has somehow become ambulatory and able to think and communicate.  Or it’s a rock or a paper clip.  Anything can succeed if you make it succeed.

Is this a happy universe or a troubled one?  How does it connect to the world your traveler starts out from?  It may or may not connect, or you may find out as you write.

You all know that I rely on lists, so for this project I would write a bunch of lists.  I might list some of the aspects of the real world that I love and aspects I definitely do not love.  You can use this list to develop your world.  Long ago, I read a short story about an alien who adored earth because we have food and we eat.  In his home galaxy there was no such thing.  Your main character could enter a world without birds and any concept of flight, for example.

List basics: size, time, light, colors, sound, smell.  Write down how your world might express these basics.  In Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, light moves slowly.  Remember, for your own creation, some – probably many – aspects of the new world should be what we’re used to or the reader will feel lost.

What problem or accident causes your character to leave?  If what she left behind was pretty good, she may just want to get back.  Before you decide, explore the possibilities.

What are the problems in the new place?  Make a list!

Write down possible means of entry into your invented world, other than a door or a wardrobe or a rabbit hole.  Maybe the way in could be connected to your main character’s character.  Suppose she’s great at math, and one day she walks into math class and none of the problems add up.  The teacher looks exactly like Mr. Mikan, except this Mr. Mikan has bushy eyebrows.  She’s in.  That simple.  I’d guess there are lots of ways to do this.

What might befall the main character once she enters?  Make a list.  There are many more possibilities than getting back home or saving the new world.  What else can you come up with?

I keep blathering on about lists because I think they’re a key to originality.  Lists free your mind to wander where you’ve never been before.  You write down seven ideas that seem boring, old, over-used, and then the eighth is a surprise, and the thirteenth is too.  Or you may have to write twenty options before you get to the fresh one.  Keep going.  And every so often glance back at the ideas you scorned to see if you might be able to breathe life into one or two of them.

There are prompts throughout this post.  I hope you try them and save them and have fun!

And, if you want to, please share your thoughts on author websites.  Thanks!