Stalled in Slow Gear

First off, a follower of the blog got in touch through my website and asked me to announce this free event, and I’m happy to oblige. Here’s what she wrote:

“…the Newbery Honor Winner and author of over 80+ books for children, Marion Dane Bauer, will be doing a FREE, LIVE teleconference call entitled “The Basics of Writing Successful Picture Books.”  It will be held on Wednesday, September 19 at 7:00 EST, and her readers can go to for more information.  She will also be offering a FREE, LIVE Webinar on Point of View in Fiction the following Wednesday, September 26, 7:00 EST.”

I plan to attend or tune in later. My picture book skills could use work.

And – you are among the first to know – I sent Beloved Elodie to my editor two weeks ago. I was afraid to announce that in case she despised it and told me to start over, but she called me, and looks like the manuscript will actually be a book! …after I revise and mostly trim. She does not like the title, so, after I bang my head against a wall a few hundred times, I may come to you guys for help again.

One more thing: I’ll be signing books at Children’s Book Day at Sunnyside in Tarrytown, New York, on Saturday, September 15th, from noon to 2:15. Hope to see some of you there! Please let me know if you found out about the event on the blog.

Now for this week’s question. On March 19, 2012, writeforfun wrote, In my last book, the beginning was really good. The conflict is introduced on the second page. For 15 pages, it’s all exciting and keeps the reader’s interest. After that, it goes downhill. The first 50 pages cover one week. During that week the MC never leaves the apartment he’s in, and the only action is his conversations with the others that live in that room and the secrets he learns about them (of which there are many). The reason for that is because he’s been kidnapped, and I needed all that time to learn about the kidnappers, who become co-MC’s, and to make them seem likable, as they are actually good guys. The trouble is, readers start to get bored. They tell me that they like knowing all this about the kidnappers, but it seems a little dragged-out, although they can never tell me what I should omit. I guess all I’m asking is, how do I know what to cut, and how do I keep the reader’s interest until AFTER the 50 page mark, when the action kicks up again?

To start, congratulations for soldiering through the gluey part, where the action is stalled. For me, when I sense the reader’s boredom the going gets tough. Writeforfun, if you’ve finished your story, by now you may already have figured out what to cut. For the rest of us, often we can get perspective on the parts we need and the parts we don’t only after we’ve written “The End.” As the plot works itself out, we develop our characters and discover what they’re driven to do. When we’re done we realize that some of the incidents, sometimes entire chapters, we thought were crucial have become unnecessary or actually impede progress.

But if you have finished and you still can’t tell, here are my ideas:

Consider whether all the secrets are necessary. Maybe you’re giving the reader too much and she’ll never keep it all straight as the plot progresses. If you can slice out a few story strands the pace may pick up. Or maybe some secrets can be revealed later, after the characters leave the room. You may be able to work in a few pauses for exposition, a break for a meal, a fireside chat before your characters go to sleep.

The message that the kidnappers are good can be conveyed economically. I gave an example of this in my post of November 2, 2011, in which Fllep and Yunk, aliens from another galaxy who don’t speak English, enter Keith’s house in the middle of the night and tie him to his bedstead. However, before leaving him alone and going on to the rest of the household, the aliens bring his stuffed elephant over from the bureau for him to cuddle with. From this single gesture, the reader gets the idea, at least provisionally, that these beings with a single eye and hands that look like spiders, may not be so bad. Follow this up with a couple more indications, and the reader is likely to be won over. The dog may be following them and wagging his tail; the cactus plant in the window may suddenly break into flower. A few sentences may be all that’s needed.

However, going the other way, I’m not sure that cutting is required.

If the characters are stuck in a single room, the setting may start to feel claustrophobic. I had that problem in Beloved Elodie. For most of the book many of the major characters are confined to the Oase, a residence and museum inside a mountain. I love being in caves, but even I started to twitch after a while. One approach I took was to shift POV to characters on the outside. Another was to have Elodie explore parts of the Oase beyond the great hall. In writeforfun’s setup there’s just one room, but there may be ways to create private, separate areas, perhaps a closet or bathroom that could be its own environment. Or maybe there could be a screen; or two characters might barricade themselves behind a piece of furniture. Or, getting imaginative, two characters might have a way to communicate that the others don’t understand, a secret language or hand signals or something else.

*Warning!* I’m about to use a word concerning the afterlife that may offend some of you. If you’re worried, skip this paragraph:

There’s a great play, Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit (definitely high school and above) that might be worth reading if you have this problem. For those of you below high school level, it’s about three souls in hell (literally), and their hell is a single room, a modern room, like a hotel room, no torture devices. The hellishness is that the three have been chosen because their company and their combination will provide each with unending torment. The setting doesn’t change but the audience or reader is never bored.

If all your characters are in a single room, dialogue still isn’t the only option. There can be action. For instance, a fight can break out; there can be escape attempts. Depending on who’s there, the characters can engage in a project that can break up the talk. They can play a game – rummy, Scrabble, Monopoly, whatever – which may reveal goodness and evil and power relationships.

I also wonder why the reader has to find out right away that the kidnappers are good. Doubt increases tension, always a plus. Their virtue can emerge gradually in the course of the action. Sometimes, because I like my good characters, I don’t want anyone to think ill of them for even a page. I may mire my stories in mud just to shine their halos – I need to remember that there’s no way I can actually hurt their feelings!

Here’s another approach, it’s possible that the story starts too late and a better beginning would have begun earlier. The secrets that are revealed may more properly be shown in action when they happened. Let’s imagine that Allura, one of the kidnappers, was tortured by the terrible regime in power. Under torture, she revealed the true identity of one of those held in the room, who doesn’t even know who he really is. Now she’s got to protect him. Why not start the story with the torture?

Or, suppose another of the kidnappers, Borick, is there because he had a vision. Why not begin with the vision?

Here are three prompts:

• Nora, Nate, and Nina are trapped in the basement of Nora’s suburban ranch house during a tornado scare. When they judge that the storm must have passed and try to leave, they discover they’re trapped. Write the story, and don’t let it get boring. Create tension through their desperate situation (little water, no food, no bathroom, no cell phone reception), their personalities, their attempts to free themselves, the secret that Nate has been keeping from the others, and any other harrowing factors you invent.

• Nora, Nate, and Nina discover they’re not alone. Write the new story. Unknown to Nora’s family, homeless Norton has been living in the basement for a month. Norton is bigger and older than the others. Give hints that confuse the others and the readers about his intentions. Make him seem evil one moment, good the next until you finally resolve how he is.

• Although the entire story takes place in a modern basement, find ways to vary the setting. Write a scene of exploration. Write a scene of privacy for one or two characters.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Beset by settings

Agnes, thank you for referring Maddi to my post about Ella Enchanted the movie. I just want to add one comment, which I make whenever I talk about the film at schools and conferences. The movie has brought many readers to the book, for which I’m exceedingly grateful – so, if any of you are producers or directors or future producers or directors, please keep in mind that I have lots of other books! Making a movie costs a great deal and you’ll need studio support, but I’ll be eager for you to succeed.

On to the post question: In September Julia wrote, I have some problems with settings. I don’t like to include big hunks of nothing but setting descriptions because they seem unnatural. But when I try to slip in details about the setting in little tidbits, (for example: She ran her fingers down the rough tree bark. She was sure they had been through here before. “Are we lost?”) there aren’t enough of them, and the reader is left feeling as though he too is lost in a hazy, half-invisible environment with a couple of rough-barked trees. Does anybody have any suggestions on making setting descriptions seem more natural, while still having enough details that the setting is clear and rich?

I agree about avoiding long chunks of nothing but setting, if you can. Crime fiction writer Elmore Leonard has offered the world his Ten Rules for Writing, which you can Google. Rule number nine is, “Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.” And rule ten is, “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”

You all know that I don’t approve of blanket rules. Sometimes we have to spend a lot of words on places and things, and sometimes we need to force readers to pay attention to what they might like to skim. But these rules are worth thinking about.

I’m thinking about them right now in Beloved Elodie. Our heroine has recently reached the brunkas’ Oase. (Never mind what a brunka is.) The Oase is the brunka sanctuary and museum, which is built into Ineberg Mountain. (If you speak German, get it?) Something that’s kept at the Oase has been stolen. If it isn’t recovered and the thief caught the consequences will be dire.

The first time a character encounters a new place is the best moment to show it to the reader, whose interest will be at its peak. I took advantage of this in a way I’m especially proud of when I wrote Dave at Night. This is the moment when Dave first sees the orphanage he’s going to live in:

    ….We turned the corner, and I saw the front of the asylum.  My eyes traveled up to where a pointy tower rose, like a witch’s hat, three stories above the entrance.  Below the tower was a clock, and on each side of the clock was a smaller pointy tower.  The whole building was only four stories high in the highest part, the middle section.  The rest was just three, but each story was very tall.  The building wasn’t made for people.  It was made for witches, with plenty of room for their hats.
Too bad I can’t do something similar for Elodie. When she goes into the great hall at the Oase, the chamber is dark compared to the outside daylight, and it’s smoky compared to anything but a chimney, and I’m writing in first person, so the reader can’t sense anything she can’t sense. What’s more, the reader’s interest in the setting, while high, is much less than his worry about her danger from the thief and his curiosity about the people in this new place. It’s a moment of high tension and I can’t be long-winded.

What I did was write a short paragraph about the little she can see and a sentence about what she hears and moved on. A few pages later, when her eyes adjust to the dimness I added another paragraph of description but only one, because the scene is still pretty tense.

Tension is what we all want most of the time. Any kind of tension, not necessarily action tension as in a battle scene. Can be interpersonal tension, like when Phillippa and Wes are arguing, or psychological tension as when Phillippa faces the examiners who can expel her from her interstellar exploration program. Or any other kind of tension. But tension makes it hard to insert description. Phillippa enters the exam room. We need to show the room to the reader but we don’t want the suspense to dissipate.

Details that heighten the worry are great. The room is torrid, and Phillippa doesn’t know how she’s going to keep the beads of sweat from running down her nose or how she’s going to concentrate while she’s melting. The examiners are on a dais, which makes her feel like a child, and she has to crank her neck to look at them. The huge windows behind the examiners turn them into black shadows that she can hardly make out because the sun is in her eyes.

But if we want to tell the reader that the room is rectangular and the ceilings are high, we simply may not be able to. We may have to leave those elements to his imagination. You can let him know that the desk is made of oak if a former examinee has carved a warning into the wood grain, maybe something like, “Watch their teeth.”

In my book, Elodie is about to be taken to her room at the Oase. I haven’t yet had a chance to make the great hall come to life, but I figure I can do something with the corridor on her way to her room, so I’m wondering what she can see or smell or feel that will knock her medieval socks off. Since the Oase is in a mountain and I love caves, I’m thinking rock formations. The point is, when you can, make a detail striking. Make it leave an impression on the reader’s mind.

In the forest example that Julia gives, the tension is in the question, “Are we lost?” That question will likely awaken setting curiosity in the reader, because being lost requires a place to be lost in – the writer’s opportunity. Now we can look around. What kind of trees are in our main character’s destination? What kind have we got here? What’s the sunlight doing? Can we tell east from west or have we lost all sense of direction? What noises are we hearing? Is anything howling? As for striking, what can distinguish this forest from the generality of woods? What can rouse the reader’s sense of wonder? The size of the leaves or their color? The enormity of the tree trunks? It doesn’t have to be anything big; the tameness of the squirrels will do, or the bright blue caterpillars.

Here are three rompts:

∙    Phillippa is playing Monopoly with two enemies who have been tormenting her at school. If she wins, the torment will stop, but if she loses, they’ve devised a particularly embarrassing penalty. Write the scene, and find a way to bring in a description of the setting, the bedroom of the meanest enemy.

∙    Write Phillippa’s interstellar examination from the point of view of one of her examiners. Work in a description of the setting.

∙    In “Rumpelstiltskin,” the imp is overheard by one of the queen’s messengers as the creature sings a ditty about his name. Describe the interior of Rumpelstiltskin’s cottage. Show him bustling about, in a good way or an evil way, preparing for the baby’s arrival.

Have fun, and save what you write!