On the Links

Many of you have started NaNoWriMo. I wish you the best. May your fingers never flag. May your dreams–if you sleep–deliver scenes and characters. Put them in! May your brain send ideas: the surprising, the wild, even the ordinary–no judgment, just so they generate words. Go, writers, go!

On January 21, 2020, Writing Cat Lover wrote, I was wondering, how do you link things? Like, I, as a pantser, always have trouble with the plot – and it seems that everything is separate. Any tips on linking everything together so my plot doesn’t die? Any advice would really help!

Several of you responded.

Christie V Powell: I think it has to do with linking cause and effect. For example, in my rough draft, I had a teenage daughter of the family run away right before the climax begins, when her father and brother confront angry townspeople. So, in editing, I had to figure out what might have caused the running away, and what consequences running away would have in the story. In this case, I decided that she ran away at this particular moment because her friends warned her that the angry townspeople were gathering against her family. Her father and brother go into town trying to find her, and that’s why they end up in the middle of this dangerous meeting.

I’ve enjoyed following KM Weiland’s blog, and she likes to talk about how story threads need to be linked thematically. The main characters have a Lie they believe about the world, and over the course of the story they learn to reject that Lie and learn a new Truth (for a positive arc story). Each action in the plot takes the characters along that path.

Melissa Mead: Exactly! “This happened, which caused X, and because of X…”

Raina: I’ve had the same problem, and here are some strategies I use:

  1. Cause and effect. This is probably the most basic one. A detective finds a clue, which leads them further down the trail and into the next plot point. Two friends have a fight, and one of them goes off on their own, advancing the plot. The cause and effect connections doesn’t have to be super direct or big (though you probably don’t want too many extremely-tenuous connections either). For example, my character ends up at a tavern where a major plot point happens because she’s on her way to somewhere and passing through. The tavern is not directly connected to the previous plot point (her escaping a magical tower), it’s just a small “normal” thing that happens as a result of her travels. The cause is that she needs somewhere to go on her way away from the tower, the effect is that she ends up stopping by the tavern because that’s where a traveler naturally would stop. In contrast, the plot point AFTER that is directly caused by her actions in said tavern. The cause is that she accidentally starts a bar fight. The effect is that she gets hauled off by the guards, which leads directly into the next plot point, which is her escaping from a dungeon. In both cases, the connection is there, but in one it’s more direct (consequences to her actions in the previous scene) but in another it’s more transitional (she finished doing this, and she was on the way to do something else, and this happened to her).
  2. Character motivation. This is a big picture thing, and it’s important for more than just connecting plot points, but it’s a useful tool to connect plot points. Everything your character does is connected to an overall goal, in addition to being connected with the cause-and-effect of their previous actions. If cause and effect is like two Lego blocks linking together, character motivation is like a tree. The branches aren’t all necessarily directly connected to each other (though they can be), but they’re all connected to the trunk (underlying character motivation). For example, a detective visits a hotel, a mall, and a warehouse. Maybe those three places and the events that transpire there aren’t directly related, but the reason the detective visits all of them is because they’re his leads to solving a mystery (his motivation).

As a note, characters can have (and frequently do have) multiple sources of motivation. Maybe the detective visits the hotel, mall, and warehouse to look for clues (motivation: solve the mystery), and then goes to a bar to meet with his crush (motivation: love). These things aren’t necessarily cause and effect, but they’re all “caused” by the detective’s personality, who he is and what he wants as a person.

Oh, and one more point: coincidence is also a tool you can use, although you shouldn’t use it too often. It’s perfectly okay to have your character randomly stumble into the inciting incident because they were walking on the street and saw/heard something that propels them into the plot (like the beginning of Cassandra Clare’s City of Bones, where the MC is at a party, just another normal day for her, and sees someone gets murdered, which then leads to her finding out about a secret world of demon hunters). The problem with this is that it’s a passive form of plot progression (where an outside force acts on the MC, rather than have the plot be based around the MC’s actions and their consequences), so you don’t want to use it too often. That’s why you typically don’t see this used beyond the inciting incident. You can also later reveal information that justifies the coincidence or suggests that it wasn’t really a coincidence at all (in the case of CoB, MC was actually the daughter of an ex-demon-hunter-in-exile, and thus she has the ability to see magical things, which was why she saw the murder).

And since you can continuously edit stories (at least before they’re published), retconning (changing previous events to make them fit with new ones) is a powerful and very useful tool. A new plot point doesn’t fit with the old ones? You can change the old ones! You need your character to do something that doesn’t fit with their personality or motivations? You can change their personality! Granted, you should do so carefully because it’ll change the whole story, but if you don’t like it, you can change your entire story and as long as the change is consistent throughout the entire thing, no one will ever know. I think writers sometimes take that for granted, because I certainly did, until I figured out that other mediums (like role-playing games) aren’t like that.

I love reading everyone’s approaches, because we all get to the same place–story–by different routes. And I’m with Raina on the infinite possibilities of revision.

Here are some approaches that I use that may be helpful:

Even though I’m mostly a pantser, I do need to know the overall problem of my story. At the moment, I’m thinking about my next project, and I’m turning the fairytale “Aladdin” over and over in my mind. The problem is the problem, because I’m not sure what that is. Is it the love story with the sultan’s daughter? Defeating the evil magician? Wielding the genies’ magic? If I’m going to go forward, I’ll need to know.

Knowing helps with the links. When a scene wants to be written, we can think about how it relates to the problem. If it doesn’t relate, we can explore how it might be shaped so that it does. (This may require a list.)

Once I’ve figured out the problem, I move onto my characters. What kind of person will my Aladdin need to be to both overcome the problem and struggle with it? Who will the princess be? The genies? What sort of villain will the magician be? These can change, as Raina says, but to get started, I need a preliminary idea.

Same with the ending. From the start, I need to know where I’m heading. Even pantsers can know that much. The ending is a beacon that lights and guides the writing road. As we write, we can ask ourselves how the scene we’re about to write will move us toward the end, either by throwing up obstacles or by overcoming them.

All of these will automatically pull the story together and forge links.

Most of my novels are from a single first-person POV, though the Trojan War manuscript I’m revising now is told in the first half by one character and then, several years later, by another. Unity is natural when there’s one teller. The reader reads her thoughts and understands how events connect.

But even with multiple POVs, a POV character’s thoughts can pull plot points together.

Writing chronologically also creates links, which is similar to the causality that everyone above wrote about. This happened, then that happened–and the reader connects them.

I’ve written here about handling flashbacks and backstory, which are fine techniques–please use them at will!–but they do wrench the reader away from the current action and make the linking harder. Even foreshadowing does that. If our story is getting unruly, we can stay in one time zone.

Lately, from more than one sad experience of losing my way, I do write a very basic outline, a few paragraphs, maybe a page–even though I’m almost intolerably bored by the exercise. Once I start writing, I forget the outline, but it influences me anyway.

I also do a sort of rolling outline sometimes. In my notes, I write about what will come next based on the scene I’ve just written, what arises from it. This may yield bullet points that will carry me through a few more scenes, when I have to regroup again and plan ahead.

If we’ve already written, say, fifty pages, that don’t seem to link, we can look them over with a dispassionate eye. We can ask questions about what we have. Is there a problem that seems more pressing than any other? If yes, how can we make it filter into everything else? If not, is there a problem that particularly interests us? Can we punch it up? Which character (or two or three characters, probably no more) interests us most? Can we relate the problem to this character? How might the problem end? We can list possibilities.

We don’t have to wait until we reach the end to revise. We can reshape our fifty pages and then continue, keeping our eye on the problem and the ending we’re aiming for while remembering that we can change any of it.

Finally, trust yourself! Trust your mind! Don’t yell at it or poke it. Let it meander and find the connections.

Here are three prompts:

• Let’s take another fairy tale that continues to confound me: “The Twelve Dancing Princesses.” The reader is supposed to rejoice at the success of the soldier in figuring out why the princesses wear out their shoes every night, but these young women come out of it without gaining their freedom, and the reader never finds out what’s really up with the underground dancing princes. In my opinion, the story solves the mystery of the shoes, but not the more interesting problems. Decide what the problem is, who the MC is, and what the ending might be, and write the first scene. If you like, keep going.

• Look at three unrelated articles in your newspaper. Stare at them. Imagine they are somehow linked. Consider what the links might be. If the three don’t yield links, you can add more articles. Find a story in them, with a problem, an MC, and an ending. Write the story as another news article with a banner headline.

• Personify an inanimate object, a plant, and an animal. Write a paragraph about each, including its personality, problems, backstory, and anything else you think is important. Look at what you have. Did you happen to include common elements that you can expand? If not, look for connections. Decide which of the three will be your MC, which your villain (if you need a villain). Write a first scene. If you like, keep going.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Tangled!

For the word nerds among us, I was wondering if lightbulb/light bulb is one word or two: https://sfwriter.com/2009/02/how-many-dictionaries-does-it-take-to.html#:~:text=The%20American%20Heritage%20English%20Dictionary,one%20word%3A%20%22lightbulb.%22

On December 30, 2019, Writing Ballerina wrote, Do you ever go to write, but find you can’t untangle the jumble in your head that is ideas and things you need to fix and character arcs and subplots and everything else? So then you either can’t write without getting lost and confused or you try to write and get overwhelmed and can’t go on too far because you can’t figure out what’s supposed to happen next?

An exchange followed with Melissa Mead.

Melissa Mead: Oh yes. In fact, I’m doing it now! I may have to backtrack.

Writing Ballerina: I suppose I should tack on to this: what do you do to get past it?

Melissa Mead: I wish I had a consistent solution. Mostly, I keep thinking about it and either writing around it or working on other things until things come together.

I wish I had a consistent solution too.

This is a hard question to answer, because once I get myself out of this kind of mess, a merciful amnesia falls over me, and I don’t remember how I solved it. Sadly, what I do recall is thinking repeatedly that I’d found my way, writing twenty-plus pages and then falling into a ditch.

Also, the medicine for one story may not cure another. Every project presents different challenges.

I’ve never abandoned a book, but twice I’ve written different tales than the one I set out to tell. The books were Stolen Magic and The Two Princesses of Bamarre. For both, I regret never being able to figure my original plots out because they interested me and I’d still like to discover what would have happened. In the end, though, I wrote the book I could write and let go of the one I couldn’t.

I remember with both books that I changed POV more than once. Two Princesses wound up in first person, and Stolen Magic switches among three third-person perspectives. Finding the POV helped, so that can be one strategy, to change POV and see the effect.

In Stolen Magic, I simplified and simplified to find my story. That can be another strategy. We can ask if we’ve taken too much on and complicated our plot with too many twists and turns and subplots. What can we strip away? What’s essential? Greed was at the heart of my original version, and I kept that.

We can ask ourselves lots of questions and answer them:

• What is the central problem of the story? If there is more than one, our lives will be easier if we decide which is paramount.

• Who is our MC?

• Is there more than one MC? How many? Too many? (Not that there’s a magic number. We’re asking this only because things aren’t going well.)

• Are the MCs’ goals related to each other (belong in the same story)?

• Is the time span as compressed as it can be? The plot will tighten if we can compress, and compressing may help us simplify.

• Is this world too complex? Do we have to juggle so many eggs that a few go splat?

We can make a timeline and ponder it. This may help us see what’s going on and what we need to do.

Same for chapters. We can summarize them. As I write, sometimes (often) I forget what went before. Being reminded keeps me on track.

I don’t believe that every character has to have an arc. If a character is beckoning to us, we can answer the call in another story.

Even in a late stage we can write the kind of outline I, mostly a pantser, write, a few paragraphs or a page, the broadest guide to the symphony that is our story, just the major movements.

As for things we need to fix, I think we should leave them unfixed if at all possible until we have a complete first draft, because the task will be easier then. We’ll know everything, and we’ll know what isn’t working and what is. What I do with this, is I note at the very top of my manuscript the things I want to keep in mind when I go through it later.

Let’s roll some fairytales together in these prompts:

• Your MC, a princess, is despised by her stepmother who owns a magic mirror, and she’s going to prick her finger and sleep for a hundred years. Write the story.

• Your MC loves the sultan’s daughter and is in danger from an evil magician posing as his uncle, and his sister is stuck in the castle of a Beast. Write the story.

• For extra credit, smush the two above prompts into one, combining “Snow White,” “Sleeping Beauty,” “Aladdin,” and “Beauty and the Beast.” Turn it into a coherent story, I dare you!

Have fun, and save what your write!

Burrowing Into the Blur

Before I start, the countdown is on to the release of A Ceiling Made of Eggshells, on May 12th, six days away!

On December 5, 2019, Kit Kat Kitty wrote: How do you write past the beginning? The farthest I’ve ever gotten in a novel was 15707 words. (Yes, I failed NaNoWriMo. After a little I hated my story so much, I had a hard time looking at it.) Once I’m done with the beginning, I tend to get stuck. Every time I think about it, I can only imagine the climax/falling action/ending. Everything between the Inciting Incident and climax is a blurry haze of no ideas and wanting to slam my head against a wall.

A few of you weighed in.

Writing Ballerina: There’s no rule that says a book has to be written chronologically. Write whatever part excites you. Then you can go back later. Writing the climax and ending might actually make it easier for you to know where you’re going. It also might help for you to plan that part you get stuck very in depth so you always have a place to go. And if you’re having a really slow day, you can throw in some silly things like sea monsters nibbling apples, or a random cat into your scene to get things moving. I did this a couple times during Nano.

Kit Kat Kitty: This is really helpful! (I love cats, and when I was younger they were in my stories all the time.) But I think my big problem is I’m not really sure what’s supposed to go in the “rising action” place. (I don’t know what else to call it, I’m going based off of what my English class has taught me.) I think if I could figure out how to write something interesting that moves the plot forward without being so crazy and over the top it doesn’t make sense.

Writing Ballerina says: Plot is driven by tension more than action, so focus on events that will build the tension of the story. I really recommend the book Story Trumps Structure by Steven James. He has lots of great tips on how to build tension, write plot twists, and a bunch of other stuff. You can probably get the book on your library, or even google excerpts.

Melissa Mead: I learned by writing short stories first. They give me experience with writing stories all the way through.

future_famous_author: You could skip the beginning, or you could just keep exciting things happening the whole time to keep you–and the reader–excited. My current WIP is about a princess, and she is eventually going to get captured, but I have to wait until I have about twice as many words as I have now to get to that part. So, while I wait, I try to keep the tension high. And, when there is a boring conversation, I try to throw in important information, or maybe even foreshadowing, so that it isn’t boring. Just because you haven’t reached the climax does not mean that there can’t be problems. My MC’s biggest problem will end up being that she gets kidnapped, but for now, there’s an awkward love triangle going on, and so she has to deal with that.

These are terrific!

Before sheltering in place and after, I hope, I work out with a trainer named Tony, which makes me a very strong old lady. When I tell Tony something like, “I’m worried I’ll drop this fifty-three pound kettlebell on my toe,” he always answers in all caps, “DON’T DROP THE KETTLEBELL ON YOUR TOE.” So, with Tony in mind, I say to Kit Kat Kitty, “DON’T SLAM YOUR HEAD AGAINST A WALL.” !!!

Writing Ballerina’s first comment–about writing out of order and writing scenes that excite us–is along the lines of what I said in the most recent post. Likewise, my ideas about being stuck, so Kit Kat Kitty and others may be helped by rereading that.

Before we progress beyond our beginning, let’s talk about beginnings themselves and take a look at one of the most famous first lines ever, by Jane Austen in Pride and Prejudice: It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. What does this beginning do, in addition to making us smile?

Well, even though it’s lighthearted and ironic, it lets the reader know that the book is going to tackle something big–love and matrimony. There will be the two sweethearts and all the circumstances that separate them, which will have to involve other characters, probably friends and family, and a milieu in which they move.

Here is a sampling of first lines I found in a Google search. I’ve read all but the book by Anne Tyler (but I’ve read others by her), and they’re all, except, I think, for The Red Badge of Courage, best for high school and up.

Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person. —Anne Tyler, Back When We Were Grownups

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. —F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

Granted: I am an inmate of a mental hospital; my keeper is watching me, he never lets me out of his sight; there’s a peephole in the door, and my keeper’s eye is the shade of brown that can never see through a blue-eyed type like me. —Gunter Grass, The Tin Drum

The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting. —Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. —George Orwell, 1984

(An aside about copyright: Most of these books aren’t in the public domain, but quoting such a small bit is okay, covered by something called the Fair Use doctrine.)

I want to be clear here: I don’t mean we should agonize over our first sentence. A big deal is often made about the need to have a knockout first sentence or first page for queries or agents. I hope that’s not true, and I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about how to think about our beginnings so that they set us up to move into the rest of our story.

Each of these first sentences suggests big things to come, maybe thorny problems or complex worlds or complicated characters, or all of the above. We can look at the beginning we have, that we’re feeling hopeless about, and ask what we’ve suggested in it. We know the end, but what else did we put in the beginning that we can use, that hasn’t occurred to us before? We can write notes, ask questions, make lists. Who are the characters? What can we do with them in the course of our story? How can we use the world we’ve hinted at? What do we have that will make our ending richer when we get there?

I’m with future_famous_author on developing exciting scenes to get us from dot to dot along our storyline. We can ask, What will be very hard for our MC? Is there a hint of this in our beginning? (If not, we can add.) Who will put her in this tough situation? How can we bring it about? Will she learn something, or fail to learn?

I like the rule of three, which I’ve talked about here. It’s used repeatedly in fairy tales. The evil stepmother in “Snow White” tries three times to do in Snow White and seems to succeed only on the third attempt. Cinderella goes to three balls. The wolf blows down two houses before he comes to the third, the brick house. We can consider how we can bring three tries at something into our story.

Each try can be fleshed out. At each of Prince Charming’s balls, events happen; characters behave characteristically; feelings may be hurt; unforgettable things may be said. What’s wrapped up in each ball can fuel the rest of our story. The evil queen may spend days figuring out her next ploy, while Snow White compulsively replays the last one in her mind, and the dwarfs whisper among themselves about how best to protect her.

Since I find plotting so hard, I like to have something external I can follow, one reason I use fairy tales, which provide steps to get me where I need eventually to go. I elaborate on the steps and turn each one into dozens of pages or more. Right now, I’m writing a version of the Trojan War. I start with the moment when Apollo gives Cassandra the gift of prophecy but curses the gift so that no one believes her. The story runs through the incidents that lead to war, the war itself, and ends soon after the Trojan horse deception. Those steps are laid out in Greek mythology, so my job is to drape my own, new story over them. This is another strategy for finding our way from our dynamite beginning to our great ending.

Here are three prompts:

• Take one of the famous beginnings above, preferably from a book you haven’t read, and use it as a starter for your own story. You can copy it right into your first draft and then insert something else or cut it when you revise. Or–you’d need to check on this–you can keep it and acknowledge the source in a note or an Afterword. Think about the problems the beginning hints at. Write notes and lists about how you can use them. Imagine an ending and write your story.

• Look at headlines in a newspaper, in print or online. Do not read the articles that follow, at least not yet. Pick one and make it the beginning of your story. Think about the issues it raises and the characters you’ll need. Imagine an ending. Jot down three or more events that will get you to the end. Write the story.

• Imagine the three little pigs are three human sisters orphaned in a kingdom after their parents, the duke and duchess of Mewks, have died. These young women are rich and they don’t get along, so they each set up a separate establishment. But they’re all threatened (you decide how) by the evil Baron Spythe. Write a story about the choices they make and how they all come together in the end to defeat the mustache-twirling Spythe. (You don’t have to give him a mustache!)

Have fun, and save what you write!

The Plots Beneath the Plot

Kudos and congrats to all of you who ran the NaNoWriMo course! Yay! Please let us know about your victory.

And if any questions came up in the process, please ask.

Actually, I’m pretty desperate for questions. Somehow, my list is almost dry. The kind of questions that get my blog-post mind going are ones related to the big writing issues: character, plot, setting, tension–you know. I’d also welcome some craft questions, too, like about flow or sentences. Also publishing questions, which I don’t generally get into much, like working with an editor or an agent. And poetry!

On September 20, 2019, Erica wrote, Does anyone have tips for writing subplots? I tend to write short stories, which don’t need subplots, but now that I’m trying to do something longer, I need more depth. Also, my sentences tend to feel incomplete if they don’t have at least one comma, leading to run-on sentences. Any tips there?

Melissa Mead wrote back, I could use some tips on subplots myself.

Pretend the commas are money, and spend them as effectively as you can.

Back to Erica: Good idea! I suspect part of this comes from doing so well on those “combine two sentences into one” sections on standardized tests. I like long strings of connected phrases, and that probably has not helped either.

Subplots first.

Erica, you might try–like the combining-two-sentences exercises–combining two of your short stories, which we can all use as a strategy and which will probably involve changes to both stories, especially to the characters. We’ll ask ourselves if our MC in one story can become a secondary character in another, if the plot lines can work together, and if the conflict is similar or can be made to be.

What’s a subplot anyway? I’d say it’s a little story that has its own conclusion while helping the main plot along to its bigger resolution.

Let’s look at some examples. With Wikipedia’s help, I just refreshed my memory about the movie Back to the Future (the first one). The main plot concerns Marty’s need to get back to his present time. The two subplots that jumped out at me were ensuring the success of the romance between his parents and keeping Doc from dying years later.

Both of these involve secondary characters: a younger Doc, and Marty’s parents when they were in high school. I won’t give away the resolution of Doc’s problem, but Marty’s parents have to fall in love or Marty won’t ever exist. Each one contributes to the ending of the movie.

Now let’s look at LOTR, which is loaded with subplots. The main plot centers around Frodo taking the ring to Mordor and saving the world. One subplot involves Aragorn becoming king. Another is Gandalf’s capture by Saruman. Yet another is Boromir’s tragedy. Each of these involves a secondary character. Except for Boromir’s subplot, they also take place away from Frodo, so a subplot can have a different setting from the main event. And they all contribute to Frodo’s quest.

A subplot can be separate in time as well as place. For instance, say there’s going to be a war, and our MC is going to lead one side, we could introduce subplots that take place even before our MC is born. But these subplots set up the conditions our MC faces.

To create our subplots, we can ask ourselves what our secondary characters want, just as we ask what our MC wants. Then we can give them desires that dovetail with our MC’s situation, by supporting or undermining it.

A great example of undermining comes in–you guessed it–Pride and Prejudice. I see three subplots here: Jane’s romance with Bingley, Charlotte Lucas’s urgent need to be married, and Lydia’s flirtation with Wickham. Lydia’s mess, a genuine subplot, causes the crisis that leads to the resolution of the main plot. If you haven’t read P&P, I haven’t given much away.

After we give our secondary characters desires, the next step is to develop incidents to bring the subplot to life. In P&P, Lydia’s subplot comes to fruition when she goes to Brighton, which the reader learns about through reports by other characters. At Bingley’s ball, which is important for Jane’s story, Elizabeth deals with happenings of her own.

To summarize:

∙ We can combine stories, subordinating one to another, to produce a subplot or more than one.

∙ Subplots can take place at different places or times from the main plot.

∙ Story arcs for secondary characters will produce subplots.

∙ Subplots need action and resolution, just like the main plot.

∙ Our subplots will intersect with the main plot, helping or hindering our MC from achieving her goals.

Onto commas and sentences.

Just saying, sentences with commas don’t have to be long: He ate, and she watched. Or, He ate, but she watched. These are two independent clauses connected by a conjunction. Five words. He ate is an independent clause, and so is she watched. Also, a list can produce a lot of commas, but the sentence can still be simple, as in: She ate a can of cranberry sauce, half a turkey, a mound of stuffing, a ladle of gravy, a big blob of mashed sweet potatoes, two brussel sprouts, one bite of salad, a quarter of a pumpkin pie, a wedge of apple crisp, and a handful of Tums. It’s all coming back to me.

On the subject of commas, I accuse Erica of being a comma-sentence-length hypochondriac. Let’s look again at her question and her response to Melissa Mead, with my notations:

Does anyone have tips for writing subplots? (No commas. Short sentence.) I tend to write short stories, which don’t need subplots, but now that I’m trying to do something longer, I need more depth. (Four commas. Long sentence.) Also, my sentences tend to feel incomplete if they don’t have at least one comma, leading to run-on sentences. (Three commas. Medium length.) Any tips there? (No commas. Short sentence.)

No run-on sentences.

And:

Good idea! (No commas. Short sentence.) I suspect part of this comes from doing so well on those “combine two sentences into one” sections on standardized tests. (No commas. Longish sentence.) I like long strings of connected phrases, and that probably has not helped either. (One comma. Medium length sentence.)

No run-on sentences.

There’s sentence variety in the sample. Most sentences begin differently. I see two questions and an exclamation. I conclude that the patient is  healthy. Unless Erica writes differently in her fiction, I don’t see a problem.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Your MC and four other characters are traveling together–by train, spaceship, medieval caravan, horse, whatever. They’re all on a mission to warn their king or queen or democratically elected representative or benevolent dictator of a plot against the country’s independence. Their route is fraught with danger. Each of them has personal goals as well as the main mission. One wants to keep them from reaching their destination. Two fall in love. One is hiding an illness. Use these to create subplots. Write the story.

∙ At random, pick a few paragraphs from your WIP. Analyze them the way I just did. If a lot of sentences are short, combine them, not just by putting them together with and in between. Create dependent clauses. If too many start the same way, say with the or I, recast them. If many are long, cut them up. If many begin the same way, rearrange them. If the verb keeps being was or is, rewrite the sentence so that the verbs are more active.

∙ Mash together “Jack and the Beanstalk,” “The Princess and the Pea,” and “The Princess on the Glass Hill.” Pick one to be the main story and the others to be subplots. I don’t know if this will be helpful, but I just noticed that all three involve heights. Write the story.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Plotting Plot

On November 25, 2018, Superb♥Girl wrote, I have a problem–a big one.

This isn’t for any WIP in particular, but my writing in general. I have total confidence in the my world-building, and I quite love my characters–but for the life of me, plot is something I just can’t tackle.

Many of you chimed in.

Melissa Mead: I approach plot with great trepidation and trembling. Which is probably why I write sooo slowly.

I’ve been checking out the Snowflake Method recently. (Note: I haven’t actually BOUGHT anything. I just read the article: https://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/articles/snowflake-method/

Sara: I have plot troubles too. Sometimes it’s so hard to find the solution to things, or to even create a substantial problem in the first place. My advice is lots of trial and error, exploring everything you think of, and research, both on plotting in general and on whatever your subject is.

Kyryiann: I mainly start with the character and the world as well. As a pantser, I tend to come up with plot as I go, starting with just one main idea – like “hey, it would be cool to write a story about a spy!” – and building it up and branching out from there.

Writeforfun: It’s funny, I’m the other way around! I always start with plot! Although, you can’t really have a plot without a vague idea of the sort of characters that are in it, I suppose, so perhaps you could say that I start with characters as well as the plot. For me, I have to know what the story is about before I can really develop any of the characters or bother with the world it’s in. The exception to that would be the sequels I’ve written to one of my original books, which naturally came with a pre-made cast of characters; but even those I only wrote because I had a story in mind that they happened to fit into nicely.

Now that I think about it, I think my current book may be the first one I’ve intentionally started without a plot already formed in my head – after my computer crashed and I lost my previous stories, I needed a fresh start. There are certain personalities and themes that I’m drawn to in stories, so I tried to think of a character and plot that would include one – in this case, a misfit with self-confidence issues who must learn to accept himself – and figure out what sort of plot would explore that. I started thinking of things that would challenge and grow my character as an individual, as well as the grand-scheme conflict (in this case a looming war) to introduce some bigger dangers. I thought of how a few more characters could help further the story, even bring a bit of their own into it…and from these fragments I pieced together the idea for my tale. As the story came along, the characters kind of evolved into it. Once I had the story and characters, I came up with a world to put them in. I don’t know if that’s backwards – but it worked for me, at least!

Perhaps I begin with plot because I am a planner; I simply must have at least a general idea of where my plot is going. If I don’t, I’ll simply meander into nothing but pointless dialogue before giving up. Having a concept of where I’m going keeps me on track; the surprise for me, then, is seeing exactly how things unfold, how conversations go, unexpected subplots that pop up, and the occasional character that surprises me and breaks out of the plan I had set.

But, at least for me, it all starts with an original plot!

Christie V Powell: KM Weiland’s website has a lot of ads for her printed books, but all of the information is available for free on her blog. Her series on Story Structure starts here: https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/secrets-story-structure-complete-series/
And her series on incorporating character arcs into plot starts here: https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/write-character-arcs/

Last year, I started a story just pantsing, and it turned into a huge mess that’s taken me over a year, so far, to edit into something publishable. I did two for NaNo this year that are a lot smoother and will take a ton less editing, because I have the story structure in place. So having an organized system works a lot better for me.

I also liked the book “Story Genius” by Lisa Cron, which has a similar system for using character to create plot.

Song4myKing: Unfortunately, I don’t have nearly as much time to write as I would like, so I usually have mulled the story around and around in my head and gotten a good sense of what will and what won’t work before I even start to write. Some of my stories have sprung from an intriguing world-building idea. One story comes from one of the biggest threats my characters in that world face, just because of the nature of the people and their environment. Another one came out of my wondering how this environment came to be, thousands of years earlier. Both of these have a fairly obvious place to begin, and I know where I want it to end up.

But the two stories I’ve gotten most excited about developed a little less logically. The seed ideas for both of them were dreams. Basically, when I woke up, I had a scene in my head complete with action, characters, and emotion. And I wanted to figure out what in the world was going on, and it had to make sense in the wide-awake daylight. I think the emotion helped. For one thing, it made me care. For another, it gave me a direction to start searching. I thought of a number of different scenarios and discarded them, because they didn’t really pack the right emotional wallop. Either that, or they had the right emotion, but lacked in the common sense department. Then once I had a context that seemed to fit, that context was the plot. It was a conflict, and it had to have a beginning, and it had to go somewhere. And I had to follow it and figure out where I wanted it to end up.

I haven’t yet tried to stir up this process artificially, but I want to try it the next time I’m stuck, or wanting to start something new. Here’s how I might try it: take a snippet of overheard or imagined conversation or a little action with its reaction, add two or three faces from a WIP or from random strangers on Pinterest character boards, pick an emotion (a negative one), add a second emotion that could be connected but is not a synonym to the first one, mix well, mentally narrate the scene, then stare out a window on a rainy day and ask “Why?”

Remember, no idea is too crazy to play with! The freedom of mental narration is that no one else can possibly read it but yourself. No one else will know how many weird possibilities you entertained before you found what worked.

These are great!

I want to summarize them for everyone to use, but first, a quick word about plot. What’s at its dark heart? Conflict! Trouble! Misery for our MCs! That’s what we most need to keep in mind when we think about plot.

Kyryiann comes up with a main idea, like a story about a spy. Spy suggests danger. We ask where and upon whom our spy is spying. Why? What’s the mission? As we answer these questions, provisionally at the beginning, our world, our characters, and our plot emerge. We remember that we have to make trouble, often, if not constantly.

Writeforfun: Knowing what the story is about and what themes she’s drawn to, like self-acceptance. Here we start with a theme: self-acceptance. Which, naturally, suggests that at the outset our MC doesn’t accept herself. And what does that imply? Yes! Conflict! We think about which aspects of herself she doesn’t accept and whether or not she’s right. What can we bring in to force a climax? Are we writing an action-oriented story, or an interior one? Because the kind of conflict will be different. What other characters can we bring in to intensify her dissatisfaction? Who will hurt her? who will help her? Who will do both?

Like Writeforfun, I’m charmed by seeing where a bare-bones story takes me as I flesh it out. Surprises abound.

Christie V Powell has to have a story structure in place before she starts writing, which means that discovering the conflict and the way it works out start earlier, and the steps to resolution will be planned, probably in an outline. We can do that, too, so that we see our way clear to the end. Our characters struggle, but we’re secure!

Song4myKing mulls her ideas over and gets them somewhat set before she starts. I do that, too, but usually once my story is underway.

Some of her plots come from world-building, and Superb♥Girl enjoys world-building. In this case, we think about the opportunities for conflict in the world. For example, Winston Churchill said (two months after I was born–I just looked it up) that democracy is the worst system of government, except for all the others. Suppose we have our world ruled by a committee of the wise. What could go wrong? We probe and uncover what does–the conflict. We think about the characters we have in mind for the committee. How will they be part of the mess? What will their personalities lead them to do in response? What can we have them do to intensify the trouble? Who will suffer to make matters better?

Song4myKing was lucky enough to be graced twice by dreams that matured into stories. A useful aspect of the dreams was the emotion. We can use that. We start with a feeling, probably not happiness: foreboding, fear, out-of-control giddiness, or something else. Working backward, we wonder what caused it. Who was involved?

Many writers begin with a character who wants something he can’t have easily. Again, we’re looking for conflict. Superb♥Girl loves her characters. After we decide which ones are our MCs, we need to think about what would make them miserable. And next what will keep them miserable? And what might they do to become less miserable? How might they fail? How might they succeed, a little? Who in our cast will make them unhappier? What are the actions that will go with all of that?

I’m with Melissa Mead, in that plot is the hardest part for me, which is one reason that I often go to fairy tales for inspiration, because they already have a plot, and I can borrow it. I’m helped by the gaps in the original versions of these stories. My plot emerges as I figure out why Cinderella obeys her stepfamily, why the evil queen in “Snow White” is so influenced by her mirror, why the prince kisses Sleeping Beauty.

We all can go to these stories for plot, because they lend themselves to so many interpretations. Same with folk tales, tall tales, myths, Bible stories. And we can dip into history. Many of the big moments have been explored fictionally, but history is enormous and full of drama and lends itself to all kinds of interpretations, like the American Revolution or, really, any war, with vampires–all that delicious blood! We can bring in fantasy elements. The last czar of Russia can be a dragon. Henry VIII can be a wizard, who doesn’t understand what it’s like to be human.

Here are four prompts:

• Henry VIII is a wizard, and a tad self-centered. Kill off his last wife, Catherine Parr, in any way you like and give him a seventh, who can be your MC. Write what happens.

• Read or reread Jane Eyre–or read a plot summary. Branch off from the original with the tale of St. John Rivers, the suitor turned down by Jane.

• Go with the spy idea. Your MC is spying on the secret society, the NVLM. She has to infiltrate the group even though they can all read minds and she can’t. Write how she does it. Keep going and write the story.

• Callie can’t stand her own puppy-dog nature. She’s nice to people even if they’re unpleasant to her. If someone blames her for anything, she can barely stay inside her skin, she’s so upset. Someone comes into her life who is distinctly unkind, someone who, for whatever reason you decide, is going to be around for awhile–a new family member, a schoolmate, a teacher, a boss. Write her story.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Where to put that plot?

I may add this as an occasional blog feature: short comments on style or other matters. Here’s a craft one I’ve thought about often–I always question the use of the word suddenly. Sometimes it’s perfect, but usually it’s unnecessary, and the word drains the surprise from whatever is about to occur, because it warns the reader. So I’d recommend being aware of it and using it only when nothing else will do.

Admittedly, however, I once told this prejudice to an editor, who laughed and said, “Writers!” So my opinion isn’t universally shared. I leave it to you.

Do you like this addition?

And for those of you who’ll be in the New York City area: I’ll be signing books from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm on Saturday, September 29th, at the Chappaqua Book Festival, where there may be many authors you love. I’ll have plenty of time to chat. Here’s a link to the event: http://www.ccbfestival.org/.

On July 18, 2018, Laura R wrote, I have a fanfiction that, while not my current WIP, is on the back burner to be turned into an original story. I agree that we can see what is the essential part of the story. If the essential part relies on something from the original author’s work, can that “something” be changed? For example, my fanfiction is based on a long, ongoing guild roleplay from World of Warcraft. One of game’s villains was the Lich King in the frozen Northlands. I still plan on keeping the undead, but I changed their location to a dessert (once actually a sea bay) and their leader to a dracolich that’s seeking to gain a corporeal, draconic form again. Many of the characters’ “classes” (what their attacks and weapon and armor types are based on) are really basic to fantasy settings, so I can drop the game-based specific attacks (or attack names) and use my own.

And then there’s your actual plot. If you change the setting, does your plot have to change? Does it become shorter because you no longer have to deal with part of the author’s original world? Does it become longer because you have created your own world?

In my reply, I said that I’d address the setting part of Laura R’s question.

Recently, I received a group email from my MFA alums, alerting people to an adjunct job opening at a university in New York City, teaching a class about place in literature, and the exploration was to be conducted through original student writing.

I don’t have time to take on a college-level class so I didn’t apply. From teaching one once, I learned that I spent four hours a week in the classroom and thirty more preparing and going over student work. Even my summer workshop for kids, which lasts only six weeks and is a labor of love, devours a surprising amount of time. Regardless, however, I thought about how I would teach such a class.

And I realized right away that fantasy, because of world-building, focuses more on place (setting) than other genres. I don’t mean setting isn’t always important, and isn’t sometimes essential–think of mystery series that are set in certain cities or parts of the world in which location becomes almost a character.

But for fantasy, consider The Wizard of Oz! Though I’ve read the book, I know the movie better, so that’s what I’m thinking of (and I just refreshed my memory with the plot summary on Wikipedia). What would be left without Oz and, by contrast, the colorless version of Kansas?

Without Oz or Kansas, we could have a girl who doesn’t appreciate her life. We could blow up that life in a way that doesn’t involve a twister, and we could have her travel somewhere and feel surprisingly homesick, so that the rest of the adventure is an attempt, that succeeds in the end, to get home. Of course, there’s also Toto, who sets everything in motion by biting Almira Gulch and being in danger of being euthanized, so we can imagine a different inciting incident involving a pet.

That’s bare bones. There’s much more.

Dorothy is deluded about herself (that she didn’t like her life at home), and so are other characters: the lion, who wrongly thinks he’s cowardly, the tin man, who wrongly thinks he’s unfeeling, and the straw man, who wrongly thinks he’s stupid–in a universe (setting) that accommodates these sorts of creatures. Not to mention the people of Emerald City (setting), who are deceived by their glasses into thinking that everything is green!

So we’d have to include fantastical creatures in our world, although not necessarily the same kinds, and self-delusion, since ridding the characters of them is part of the plot.

There’s the wizard himself, who deludes everyone but isn’t deluded himself. We’d need a revered but remote charismatic figure, whose unmasking figures into the story.

Then we have the good and evil witches and the enslaved flying monkeys, who are all part of this world (setting). For the new plot, they don’t have to be witches, but we need figures who represent good and evil, and we need minions of evil. The villain has to try to do our MC in, and our symbol of virtue has to save her, because, alas, Dorothy doesn’t get her own self out of Oz–or really do much to better her situation, although she is brave when she throws water on the scarecrow and accidentally melts the witch. I would say for that one, we want in our plot a villain with a secret and weird Achilles’ heel.

For all the time I’ve watched The Wizard of Oz, I’ve never noticed that the threat of Toto being put to sleep is never resolved. So if we’re following The Wizard of Oz we have to leave a major plot thread hanging!

I have to conclude, though I went into this exploration unsure, that plot–a detailed, step-by-step plot–at least in the case of The Wizard of Oz–is organically interwoven with setting.

The charm for me in discovering both my plot and my setting, is the way the two, plus character, act on the others. The setting that we create suggests directions for our story, and our plot suggests the setting that will best accommodate it.

Having said that, however, we could take the bare-bones plot that I described near the beginning of the post and create a new setting for it and follow the twists and turns that the new setting takes us to. Fairy tales, fables, and myths, with their simple story lines, can be plunked into lots of settings. Same for any plot archetype.

As for whether our new plot will be shorter or longer than its prototype–could be either one, depending on what we do and the complexity of the setting we create.

One more thing. This is on the subject of converting fanfiction into original work. I’m not an attorney or an expert in copyright, so I’d use a practical rule of thumb. Turn the tables and imagine that we wrote the work that someone else is basing a new story on. If we feel infringed–if we recognize our own creation in the new fiction and feel that our story has been stolen–then the writer hasn’t gone far enough to make the work her own. Naturally, if the story we’re basing our new plot on is already in the public domain, we’re home free. We want to be original because of course we do, but we don’t have to worry about how much of the earlier elements we’re using.

Here are three prompts:

∙ You probably saw this coming: Use as much as you possibly can of the detailed Wizard of Oz plot summary in a setting of your own devising–could be a fairy-tale kingdom, some part of the contemporary world, a dystopian future, an actual period in the past, or anything else.

∙ Use as much as you can of The Wizard of Oz plot in a masked ball.

∙ Pick a traditional story–fairy tale, myth, fable, tall tale–and put it in a high-tech setting. Let the setting influence what happens.

Have fun, and save what you write!

The dread god of the machine

On August 6, 2017, Melissa Mead wrote, The world of my would-be trilogy has humans, serpent-demons, the sort-of-angelic Aureni, and an omnipresent, basically omnipotent and benign deity, which the Aureni can heal people by praying to.

Book 2 started out as a NaNoWriMo project, and in the name of fast word count I invoked the “A wizard did it” rule and handwaved a lot of stuff. Now I want to turn it into a serious sequel, but the central premise hinges on the villain doing something that only the deity should be able to do. (And I don’t want to invoke deus ex machina any more than I can help.)

I’m also somewhat worried about offending people’s religious beliefs (it’s already happened once), but I’m hoping that readers will understand that everybody, including the deity, is fictional.

This from me: I agree that the dread deus ex machina should be avoided! Can you go back into the first book, since it isn’t published yet, and set up conditions that will make your villain’s heinous act possible in another way? Seems to me this is another time for a list of possibilities.

And from Moryah: The villain could harness the deity’s power somehow? Coerce the deity? Coerce an Aureni/some Aureni into doing it, through mind control or bribery or blackmail (would that even work?)? The villain has an object that connects to the deity? The villain coerced an Aureni into creating such an object? If only the deity can do whatever it is you need the villain to do, then logically the villain needs the deity’s power (unless you change things up in the first book, or things in this book). So the question is how the villain can harness the deity’s power – unless there are OTHER ways of obtaining a power of that magnitude. Maybe there’s another deity (like, a light-dark balance good-needs-evil idea, idk). Maybe there’s something that’s not a deity that doesn’t like the deity and would aid your villain in one-upping the deity in power (whether or not your villain is directly striking against the deity/Aureni).Maybe a random portal opens up spontaneously halfway through the book and the villain reaches into it and rummages around and pulls out a recipe for a magic vegan cornbread that when eaten gives the eater a temporary power (read: a power that will wear off once the cornbread is digested) to talk to stars, and instead your villain enslaves the stars and uses them to blackmail the deity, or uses them to perform the act you said only your deity could do.

Back to Melissa Mead: Mm, cornbread. Maybe I should put some cornbread in the story. I know a spot in Book 3 where it might be particularly plausible.   

I wish I could give more context without being spoilery… The basic idea is that the Aureni have the healing touch, and the villain has twisted that around. I can explain that storywise on a small scale, but for the big thing I’m thinking of….

…hey, I may have just caught the tiniest whiff of an idea…!

BTW, I don’t want to get rid of the actual “deus.” (Don’t think I could, actually.) I think the scenes between it and the MC are fun. I just don’t want it acting when the finite characters should.

First off, for those who don’t know, deus ex machina means, literally, god in the machine. The term originated in classical Greek theater, where play conflict was resolved when a contraption bore actors onstage who portrayed the gods and solved all the problems.

The charm of a deus ex machina is that the writer can pile on trouble after trouble without worrying about their resolution, because the gods are going to swoop in at the end and whoosh the difficulties away. I imagine that ancient theatergoers expected this and derived their pleasure from watching the train–or chariot–wreck unroll.

Fairies in most fairy tales as traditionally told operate as dei ex machina. And we who adapt these stories for modern readers struggle against this device to give our human characters agency.

The question about offending readers has come up before, and I’ve written posts about it, which you can find under the category “giving offense.” But I’ll revisit the subject briefly. I worry about this, too, although I tell myself not to. We can’t control our pesky (hah!) readers, who may take offense at story elements we think are completely innocuous. As long as we aren’t intending to give offense–I don’t even want to write that! I don’t want to give offense in my books for kids, but I don’t much care in my poems for adults, who can watch out for themselves, and some of you may be writing for grownups. And I think an argument can be made even in children’s books for being willing to give offense. A writer may want to challenge readers, for example. My guess is that YA author M. T. Anderson wasn’t very concerned about giving offense when he wrote Feed, which is a terrific though disturbing book.

On the other hand, I don’t want to encourage people to write stories that, for example, reinforce stereotypes. As a newly old person who just turned seventy, I often cringe at representations of the elderly in the media. How many forty-year-olds can drop down and pop out twenty push-ups, heh? I can, though of diminishing depth after the first ten.

And, of course, I oppose any writing that may incite violence.

But I think we know when we’re crossing a line. Most of us are probably over-cautious and keep the danger zone too far from our writing.

Onto the deity!

Melissa says that the second book’s central premise hinges on the villain doing something that only the deity should be able to accomplish. If this is a central premise, we need to take time to set it up.

We can ask ourselves, Under what conditions might this villain be able to do this impossible thing? I haven’t in decades, but I used to read super-hero comic books, and this kind of cosmic shake-up would happen regularly, especially, if I remember right, in Superman. I’d say what I always say: make a list of conditions, and, just saying, there’s no shame in putting a few of Moryah’s ideas on it.

I’m assuming that the villain is defeated in the end, so I don’t think it’s out of bounds for the villain to accomplish this thing if the reader understands how it’s done. I love the idea of a villain wily enough to usurp a deity’s power. I’m thinking of the bible story of Job. I’m not a biblical scholar, but my recollection is that Satan manipulates God into testing Job. If Job loses all his good fortune, Satan says, he will curse God. Game on. God takes away Job’s wealth, health, and, worst of all, his children.

So Satan, a much lesser being, has pushed God into an action He wouldn’t have taken otherwise. And Job, unwittingly, can also spur God to action. His fate hangs on his response to his losses.

I’m thinking also of the very old Ingmar Bergman movie called The Seventh Seal, in which a medieval knight plays a game of chess with Death. Presumably, if he wins, he lives forever. In the movie, the knight loses, which the reader expects, but one can imagine a different story with different results.

Melissa has kind of a David-and-Goliath situation going, with the villain the underdog. There’s fun to be had in playing that out. And if the villain wins, he (she? they? it?) becomes even more scary. Look! He can out-maneuver a god!

Melissa says that this god is omnipresent and omnipotent but doesn’t mention if she (he, etc.?) is omniscient. If she isn’t, the villain can use her ignorance to get the power he wants.

As a pantser, I regularly get myself into this kind of trouble. For me, it’s setting something up without realizing the long-term consequences. One solution, which both Moryah and I have suggested, is to reexamine the conditions that underpin the story, looking for elements we can use to approach the story from a new direction. For example, does the villain have to wield this particular power to do what he needs to? Does he have to do this particular thing, or can some other action bring about the same result?

As I suggested when I first responded to Melissa, she can go into the first book and tweak things to give the villain the power to do whatever has to be done. In a single book, we can go back to an earlier point in our story to make the changes.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Set your story in a world where water is limited. Two kingdoms are vying for control of the mighty Nipar River, and each kingdom has a hero/heroine who will do most of the heavy lifting. On the supernatural side, there’s an elf king, a dragon, and a goddess of justice who has limited powers. Each being backs one side or the other, though allegiances may shift. Write a scene or the whole story.

∙ Pick one or more of Moryah’s ideas and use it in a scene.

∙ Taking off from the fairy tale “Aladdin,” have Aladdin usurp the power of the genie of the lamp and do something only the genie could do.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Cinderella with a Teddy Bear

On February 18, 2016, WriterGirl4Life wrote, I find that I’m always getting bored with my stories, putting them away, critiquing myself, or just getting bored with my plot. Can you help?

When one of my stories isn’t going well, I just don’t want to go near it, which is my version of getting bored. Working on the project feels like slogging through glue. It’s happened many times, and the reason varies:

∙ We’ve made our MC unsympathetic, a mistake I’ve committed than once and the latest instance is very recent. I think I’ve mentioned that I’ve started a new book in Ella’s world, and my main character, Daria (recognize that name?), is turned into an ogre in the first chapter, so this isn’t much of a spoiler alert. I’m only twenty-two pages in, but I started feeling gluey and eventually realized that likableness is the problem. Instead of responding with horror over her transformation, Daria minimizes the situation and instantly plans how to deal with it. I want her to be capable and self-confident, but these qualities mean the most when a character struggles. In this case, the consequences are that the reader doesn’t worry because Daria has the situation in hand and doesn’t care because Daria doesn’t seem to. The reader may think, I don’t understand this character. If someone turned me into an ogre, I’d want to jump out of my skin.

Once I figured that out, I went back to the beginning–contrary to the advice I give here–and fixed. Daria is now miserable, and I’m out of the glue. So one cause of boredom may be MC character trouble, and one reason for that may be unlikableness caused by a deficit in vulnerability.

∙ We’re not in our MC’s mind and heart enough, which is related to unlikableness. We’re telling our story more through action and dialogue and our MC’s inner life is missing. We’re bored because we can’t seem to connect with him. We may have our plot path worked out, but we don’t know why he goes down it.

I’d go to my notes to consider this. I might interview him in my notes and ask him what he feels and thinks about what’s going on in the story. We may dream up alternative answers for him, and we can decide from them what sort of person he is, or we’d like him to be. We may discover he’s not willing to do some of what’s being required of him. Based on our discoveries, we may adjust our plot or adjust him, which may involve rethinking earlier scenes, whether we revise on the spot or wait until the whole story is written. That done, we can work his thoughts and emotions into our narrative.

∙ We’ve solved the problem in our story without realizing. I did this in an early version of The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre. To be specific would be a major spoiler alert, so I have to speak in generalities. My MC has a mission, but she’s propelled to pursue it only because of a  need that’s deep-seated in her psyche. Accidentally, without realizing and in a tangential way, I solved the need, and the wind went out of my sails. I was trapped in glue until, finally, I saw what I’d done. Let’s take an example from the traditional “Cinderella,” not my version. In my opinion, the underlying problem, and the reason the story appears in some form in every culture, is that the MC feels unappreciated, a near universal source of unhappiness. Cinderella is great! Look at how helpful and capable she is. And kind. And plucky. But the only one who might appreciate her–her father–is never on the scene, and she gets no respect from her step-family. Well, suppose, a year before the balls, her fairy godmother shows up and gives her, say, a magical stuffed teddy bear that can talk. Every night at bedtime, Cinderella cuddles up with her toy and he admires her for all her accomplishments and her sterling qualities. Nothing really has changed; her step-family is still cruel. But she’s satisfied. Who cares about a prince when she has Teddy? We’re likely to stay bored or gluey until somebody wields a sharp instrument and slits that bear open from his cute black nose to his darling belly.

In this case, we may not know why we’re bored, but we can think about what our MC wants or needs most. Have we accidentally provided it? Have we been unable to tolerate her unhappiness so we helped her out just, we thought, a little bit?

∙ Houston, we have a plot problem. I never fail to have some of these, alas. You may remember how tangled up I got writing what eventually became Stolen Magic. In an earlier version, which I eventually revised out of existence, MC Elodie’s mother falls under a spell of greediness. She believes she’s King Midas and doesn’t mind when Elodie seems to turn to gold, because she’d rather, in her madness, have wealth than a living daughter. It was horrifying, and, forgive me!, I loved it. But I didn’t know how to end the spell without making everything okay or without giving Elodie an ally I didn’t want her to have, so the madness dragged on and on, and I sank in glue. I wish I’d figured this out and been able to use this plot twist, but I couldn’t.

We may not have to revise everything. If we’ve written ourselves into a corner, we can go back to the point where we got into trouble, or we can list ways to change what’s going on, and we can judge how we’re doing by our state of mind. Are we no longer bored? Are we eager to write again?

The point is, we’re not stuck with anything. The final state of our story is changeable until we say it’s done. If we save our old version, we can blow up any part. I love this freedom, which is a prime advantage of writing, in my opinion, over every other art form!

Here are three prompts:

∙ In this election season, here’s a political’ish plot idea. Your MC at fifteen is running to be the youngest member of the town council. She has the vote of her parents’ generation, who, basically, think she’s adorable, and that’s enough for them. The problem is the youth vote, because young people near her age but old enough to vote find her unlikable–you decide why. Write the story, being sure to include her thoughts and feelings.

∙ Give Cinderella the admiring teddy bear (or other stuffed animal), but make him creepy. Lead the reader to suspect him right away even while Cinderella is delighted with him. Soon, he adds to her many troubles. Write “Cinderella with a Teddy Bear.”

∙ Snow White has escaped to the dwarfs. The magic mirror breaks, and her evil stepmother goes on thinking she’s been restored to fairest-in-the-land status. Readers all over the universe are yawning. Give her a new problem–the hunter? a problem dwarf? the prince in danger? an approaching asteroid?–and write 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!

Hooray for Quests!

First off, the big news: Writer to Writer is OUT–RELEASED–PUBLISHED!!! It came out yesterday. Some of you are in it–no last names, of course. Thanks to you all for making this blog a great, helpful, safe place for writers, and for making this book possible.

Second off: Ho! Ho! Ho! Happy holidays, and best wishes for great writing in 2015!

This question came into the website late in July from  Writer At Heart: What are you supposed to do when all of your stories seem to repeat? Like, I’ve had this GREAT idea for a girl going on quest, but all of my other stories seem to copy this idea. What do you do in situations like this?

Just about any story can be expressed as a quest. Consider these: Heidi is a quest for a safe home; The Wizard of Oz, a quest for contentment; Anne of Green Gables, a quest to be loved; Charlotte’s Web, a quest for survival; Pride and Prejudice (and all of Austen–every single book!), not only a quest, but the same quest every time, for marital happiness. All my three Disney Fairies books even have the word quest in the title.

You may disagree with my description of the quest in these books, but I hope you’ll agree that in each one a character wants something and struggles in ways direct and indirect to get it. The character has an objective, even if he or she wouldn’t put it that way. The objective can be called a quest.

Let’s think about Jane Austen, my favorite writer. If you haven’t read her books, I can’t recommend them highly enough. She gives the twenty-first century reader an un-self-conscious look at an earlier age, which I enjoy, but I love her humor most of all, which never gets stale, no matter how often I reread her, and certainly never gets dated. She shows us our timeless humanity, flawed and funny and sympathetic.

Yes, her stories are each wrapped around an identical objective, but the way they play themselves out is different in each one. Austen is a genius at character development. Her characters are unique and meticulously defined, and their natures determine the way they approach their quest. The obstacles are different, too, but in an Austen novel, in my opinion, the freshness comes from the richness of the characters.

In my Disney Fairies books, many of the characters are the same, because the cast always includes the major Never Land fairies: Rani, Tinker Bell, Prilla, and Vidia. And the shape of each story is circular (***SPOILER ALERT***): the fairies’ world and Never Land itself are threatened; events play out; order is restored. But there are new characters, and the threat is different in each book, and the reader gets to see how the old characters respond to an unexpected situation. I hope the reader feels the comfort of the familiar combined with the excitement of the unknown.

As I’ve said before on the blog, there aren’t many possible plots. There’s always a problem, characters who influence events, and almost always a happy or sad resolution. I’ve suggested two major strategies for creating freshness: characters and obstacles. I can think of a third: setting. Austen’s novels would have to be different if they were set in a present day town, different again if they were dropped down in Oz.

Let’s think about “Jack in the Beanstalk.” The quest is for enough money to live on, so Jack’s mother sends him off to sell the cow. Jack is willing to trade it for beans a stranger tells him are magical. Another character wouldn’t be so trusting. The quest would have to be pursued in a different way. Same quest, though. Different story.

Or we can keep Jack but change the obstacles. He takes the beans. His mother throws them out the window, because her character hasn’t changed, either. The story veers from there, though. Suppose what grows is a coat tree upon which hangs a cloak. Jack puts on the cloak, which confers magic powers, although he doesn’t know what they are. His disgusted mother kicks him out, and, in true fairy tale fashion, he sets off, innocent and gullible as ever, to make his fortune and keep his mom from starving. Same quest. Different story.

Or suppose we set the story in modern times. The beanstalk pops up. Jack climbs to the penthouse gym of his forty-story apartment building. The giant is a body builder. Killing him will land Jack in jail, if he gets away with it. Same quest. Different story.

We writers are stuck with ourselves. The themes that hold us in their grip today may change only slowly, if at all. We may have to work through them in story after story. Obedience and its mirror image, rebellion, crop up in many of my stories, obviously in Ella Enchanted, but also, to name two more, in Ever and The Fairy’s Mistake. In Ever, this saying runs through the book: As you wish, so it will be. In The Fairy’s Mistake, Rosella has to toughen up and resist her natural impulse to do what others want, while her sister has to make an exception to her own me-first motto. But this theme and the plots that it calls forth don’t make my stories all the same!

If our plots often present themselves as quests, maybe there’s something in the story shape that we’re figuring out. There may be questions we’re trying to answer through quests, or we may be exploring the limits of personal power, or could be there’s a loss we’re trying to recover. Or, since quests are so varied, it’s something entirely different. We don’t ever have to know. I believe that our hidden motives give our stories energy, vitality, and depth. If we know exactly what we’re doing (if that’s possible), we’re working only on the surface.

I like the quest shape. When I’m having plot trouble, when my story seems to be wandering and getting too complicated, I examine it to find the quest. I ask myself what the basic problem is and what my MC wants most of all–what she’s questing for. When I figure that out–things are really bad if I can’t!–I see the quest and the obstacles to its success. Then I can streamline my story and my plot falls into line.

A quest shape keeps a story moving. The reader knows what the prize is, wants it to be reached, groans at every setback, marvels at the variety of problems that we’ve created, and holds her breath until the resolution, for good or ill, arrives. Hooray for quests!

Here are four prompts:

• Write the “Jack and the Beanstalk” quests three ways: change Jack’s character; change the obstacles to his success; change the story’s setting. When you change the obstacles, you can use my coat-tree idea or anything else you come up with.

• Instead of changing Jack, change another character: his mother, the giant’s mother, the giant himself. See how the story plays out.

• I think the quest, which fails, in “Snow White” belongs to the queen, who wants to remain the most beautiful. If you disagree, indulge me anyway. Try these approaches to creating new stories with a kernel of “Snow White.” For character, she wants desperately to continue to win the beauty contest, but maybe she isn’t quite as evil as the original or isn’t evil at all. When you change the obstacles, she can’t disguise herself; she’s a complete bust at impersonation, so she has to go about endangering Snow White differently.

• If you have a story with a tangled plot that’s driving you crazy, apply the quest method. Frame the plot as a quest and work out the knots. Keep writing.

Have fun, and save what you write!