The Beginning in the Ending

On January 17, 2021, Some girl wrote, I love writing beginnings, and middles are fine, but endings always stump me. I can’t write endings that are a good end to the story.

My editors say they are extremely anticlimactic and aren’t a good fit to the rest of the story. Endings are the main reason I abandon stories. I once rewrote the ending four times and every time it felt awkward, abrupt, and anticlimactic. Anyone have any advice?

Several of us weighed in.

Melissa Mead: I have the same problem! Sometimes I try to link the ending to something in the beginning. And I try to focus on the heart of the story- Did the MC get what they wanted? Learn something? Change in some other way?

If it’s not too tacky to use my own stuff as an example, here’s one that I think works fairly well. It starts with “It was a nightmare come to life,” and “Gallop…gallop…gallop…,” and it sort of ends that way too, but something’s changed.  

https://dailysciencefiction.com/fantasy/fairy-tales/melissa-mead/horseman

Me (now): This is lots of fun and the ending works beautifully.

Back then, I asked Some Girl for clarification.

Some girl: The stories I write feel like they were building up to something bigger than what I wrote down, but I can’t really tell what the story was building up to.

Sometimes I decide on the ending that fits before I write the book, but that doesn’t work either because as the stories move around, the ending I originally thought would work won’t anymore, and I don’t want to try to mold my story to fit the ending.

Melissa Mead: I agree with not molding the story to fit the ending. Maybe ask someone to read the story, then ask them “Was there anything you still wanted to know after you read the ending?”

SluggishWriter: I’m still working on this myself, but I find that the most satisfying endings for me are when you can directly tie it back to something in the beginning. For example, a character asks a question or makes a joke early on, then references back to that and provides an answer or some insight at the end of the story. I’ve heard of this being called “brackets,” too – as if you’ve enclosed your story by having one thing at the beginning, then closing it up at the end. And you can layer multiples of these within a story.

Christie V Powell: The climax is the main show-down with your antagonistic force. What has your character been fighting against the whole time? Then think of ways you can make it even more exciting. Make sure that antagonistic force, who or whatever it is, puts up a good fight.

You’ll also want to look at the major events of the story so far. What could they lead up to? Ideally, all of the conflicts lead up to this one moment. Remember in Ella Enchanted, when Ella is struggling with her curse at the very end? Her mind goes back over many of the major events of the story, showing how all of them have impacted the main conflict (Ella vs. her curse).

Story structure helps me get a better idea of what the climax should be, since it helps me define the important moments that lead up to it. I use a variation of the 3-Act formula, and I find that it helps me get the bones of the story down, so that my creative mind is free to work on details.

Since you can’t click on links, here’s a quick overview:

Act 1.A: characteristic moment(s), high action, inciting incident

Act 1.B: normal world, first plot point (“point of no return”)

Act 2.A: enter the new world, first pinch point (learn about the antagonist)

Act 2.B: reactions, midpoint (the main character learns a major Truth about the world)

Act 2.C: start acting with purpose, second pinch point (involve the antagonist, reminder of what’s at stake)

Act 2.D: act with purpose, often includes a “false victory,” followed by the second pinch point (low point of the story)

Act 3.A: finish off loose ends, prepare for climax. Trigger (climax set off)

Act 3.B: Climax with the antagonist, then resolution where the story and character’s beginning and end are compared.

Great thoughts!

Before the four years it took me to finish my second murder mystery for kids, Stolen Magic, I believed that writing itself was magical, and pantsing would always guide me to my ending, but I got so lost on that book that I realized I had to be more intentional in the future. If I had been, I might have achieved some of the story I was hoping to tell. I’m still sad that I couldn’t write that tale, which grows more alluring and more regretted as time goes by. (I like what I finally came up with, but that original idea is the one that got away.)

These days, I won’t start writing until I know the ending. Since I’m still mostly a pantser, I don’t usually see it in detail, but I have the general result in mind. Let’s use the fairy tale “Aladdin,” as an example.

Most important to me always is plot, but character is a close second. Briefly, Aladdin is criticized at the beginning for being lazy. But is he? I don’t know. He’s flattered into helping a man who poses as his uncle but is really an evil magician who promises to make his fortune. The magician takes Aladdin to a remote spot, where he gives him a ring and sends him underground to fetch a particular lamp. When Aladdin doesn’t hand him the lamp before emerging, the magician kicks him off the ladder and plunges him in darkness. Moving along, Aladdin discovers the genie in the ring and the one in the lamp and uses their magic to win the sultan’s daughter for his wife. But the magician returns and disguises himself as a merchant, exchanging, oddly, old lamps for new. Unknowing, the sultan’s daughter is transported in her palace to the magician’s distant home. With only the weaker ring genie to help him, Aladdin can’t just magically get her back. The genie can poof him to the palace, but he has to do the rest, using a poisonous powder that he just happens to have and the help of his wife. There’s a second part that follows involving the now dead magician’s younger brother, also a magician, but most modern versions leave that part off—sensibly, I think.

There’s a happy ending, but it’s unsatisfying because the genies do all the heavy lifting, and the actions of Aladdin, the sultan’s daughter, and even the magician are unmotivated. Is Aladdin really lazy? If yes, why? Aside from her rank, why does he want to marry the sultan’s daughter (whom he’s never met)? After they’re married, why doesn’t he tell her the truth about the lamp so that she’ll be careful with it? What’s their relationship like? What does she think about him? Why does the magician kidnap her? What else does he want the lamp for? Why did he kick Aladdin back underground when he could have been a little patient and gotten what he wanted? Why do the genies obey people?

Most of all, what is the key problem of the story? Because a satisfying ending has to respond to the problem. The ending’s seeds start sprouting as soon as we write or type our first page or chapter.

If the problem is Aladdin’s laziness, then maybe we have a coming-of-age story, and we have to show how Aladdin develops and regresses and eventually (for our ending) acts emphatically to fulfill his potential as a future sultan. If I understand Christie V Powell’s method, the Lie might be that Aladdin is well served by being lazy (and we can give him a backstory that explains this), and the Truth is that he can be truly himself only when he becomes the prime actor in his life.

If this is a love story and the problem is Aladdin and the sultan’s daughter coming to love each other, then we are heading for a different ending. In this one, conceivably, rather than vanquishing the evil magician, they escape with their lives and run off together, no longer needing the trappings of wealth and title.

If the problem is overcoming the evil magician, who has bigger plans than making off with a young lady, we’ll emphasize other aspects of the story.

Or we can tell the story of the ring or lamp genie. Or of the sultan, who lets his daughter marry a man purely because he’s rich. Or of Aladdin’s younger sister, who isn’t mentioned in the fairy tale, but she can exist. What might her problem be?

For each one, we design our characters to make the ending both difficult and achievable. And we create plot moments that challenge our MCs on the way to the ending we have in mind, which, if we’re pantsers, may unfold in ways that surprise us.

Here are three prompts:

  • Decide what Aladdin’s younger sister’ problem is and how, in broad strokes, it can be resolved. Write the story.
  • As a sequel to Peter Pan, write the story of Wendy’s youngest brother Michael after the return from Neverland. Decide what his problem is and how it may be resolved.
  • After the death of its king, Altava is plunged into civil war for the throne. Contending are the old king’s niece and the regent of a neighboring kingdom. Write two versions of the story and make one a tragedy and one a romcom.

Have fun and save what you write!

Moral Pushups

On January 7, 2021, Belle Adora wrote, Whenever I am writing I always have some sort of moral to push. But I stress over pushing my point too much and causing it to be cliche or under involving it in my story and leaving the reader confused at the end. I tend to end up having a character recite a monologue where their views on something is pushed. I don’t know how to get my points across without it being dry. Any advice?

Two writers replied.

Melissa Mead: Try writing a story that doesn’t have a moral, just to see what it feels like. Often, if you focus on writing the story first, the moral will come through anyway.

Christie V Powell: I call it a theme instead of a moral, and it gets integrated into every element of stories: setting, characters, plot, etc. The theme might be hinted at, or maybe even said outright in a few key spots, but you don’t want to preach. People listen and learn much better through stories than sermons.

For instance, in my Mira’s Griffin, I wanted the theme to be about the value of communication. The theme is reflected in the setting because there are two different species that cannot communicate–and at first believes that the other is incapable. It’s in the characters, once some of the characters learn how to communicate and others don’t. It’s in the plot as the main characters work to teach their species to communicate with each other before they cause a war and kill each other. The main character doesn’t need to stand up and give a speech, because she’s living the theme.

These are spot on!

I don’t look for morals in novels. I’m most eager for engaging characters, an exciting plot, a solid setting, and good writing. But when I look at my own fiction, I do see a theme (as Christie V Powell says) that runs through them: kindness, which I suppose is my highest value—even thinking that chokes me up a little. I don’t believe humans have much if we take away kindness—and kindness means empathy. My crazy fairy Lucinda doesn’t intend to hurt anyone; she wants to help, but she has no empathy, so she can’t even guess what real help would mean. Mandy and other fairies, by contrast, don’t practice big magic because empathy constrains them; they imagine the chaos and suffering they could cause. They suffer just thinking of it and hold back.

I’m like Christie V Powell in that my characters don’t speechify. The kindness theme reveals itself in the way the plot plays out, in the lives of the characters, in what succeeds in the end and what fails. (I’d argue that kindness also underpins Mira’s Griffin as described.)

I was at my preachiest in The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre and in my historical novel, A Ceiling Made of Eggshells, which are both, moral-wise, about the evils of prejudice. In Lost Kingdom, MC Perry makes a speech about tyranny but not about prejudice, which isn’t addressed directly, but it’s implicit in everything. In Ceiling, antisemitism is discussed, as it would have been back then (and now), and it’s part but not all of what caused the Jews to be expelled from Spain. They were also taxed into such poverty that they were no longer economically useful to the monarchs, which made them disposable.

If we want to convey a moral and we want to make sure our readers get it, how do we do it while keeping them happy and engaged?

Louisa May Alcott stuffed a moral into every chapter and sometimes every page of her books for children, which I loved when I was little. My parents loved them too, because I turned into a paragon for as long as I was reading one! Back then, the morals didn’t bore me as they do now. I was eager for the lesson, whatever it happened to be. Sometimes Alcott’s perspective was feminist, and sometimes it was distinctly not.

Novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand was also a moralist. I don’t agree with her doctrine of selfishness, which seems to me not to embody either kindness or empathy, but I loved her books while I read them. I plowed enthusiastically through her characters’ endless speeches on economic and political theory. During the reading, I saw the world as she did. A week or so later, I’d wake up.

(If you’re interested, her early novel We the Living is autobiographical, and the reader gets the backstory of her positions—and feels for her.)

Both writers, both dead, are still popular. So how did they do it?

I’m not sure, but I have some ideas.

We care about their characters, and part of what we love about them is their ideals, which is where the moral is found. The characters may fall short, as Jo March often does, but the falling short makes us love her more, because we often fall short too, but we like to think we pick ourselves up and keep going, as Jo does. The Rand heroines are mysterious and surprising—weird, really, but I liked that.

The novels of both authors are romances, and the moral is tied up with the romance. The girl and the guy can’t love each other if they don’t satisfy each other’s idea of what’s right. Jo can’t attach herself to Laurie, no matter how much I wanted her to, because he just isn’t upstanding enough, but he can be paired with Amy, who will whip him into shape, at least as I remember.

The moral in both books is usually stated in dialogue rather than narration, and the reader loves the speaker who puts the moral forward.

In Rand in particular, the stakes are high—the world, actually. The importance kept me glued to the story.

So we have: character, romance, a dialogue delivery system, and high stakes. Here are three prompts to try them out on:

  • The moral of the story of Robin Hood is that stealing is good if the poor benefit. The moral of Ayn Rand’s novels is that selfishness is good because it improves the human condition. Write a story with an Opposite-Day moral, like that lying—or cheating or laziness or greed, etc.—is good.
  • In “Little Red Riding Hood,” the moral is to listen to your mother. Or maybe it’s not to stray from the righteous path. Little Red doesn’t listen and does stray and matters don’t go well for her. But what would have happened if she stuck to the road? Write that story, and make sure it doesn’t go well. If you like, bring in a different moral for the reader to ponder.
  • Write a story spun off from Pride and Prejudice about Lydia’s life with Wickham. If you don’t have the book memorized, read a plot summary to get you going. Lydia has flouted the morality of her time. If you like, work in a moral for your story.

Have fun and save what you write!

Slicing Life

I posted this as a comment a few days ago, about a poetry-writing contest for high-school-age people: Here’s the link to Narrative High High School Writing Contest: https://www.narrativemagazine.com/narrative-in-the-schools-program/seventh-annual-contest. You’ll read there about the rules and awards. I wrote to the contest to see if home-schooled kids can participate, and the answer is yes. The contest folks wrote back with these criteria for home-schoolers:
1. Be within our age bracket stipulation (grades 9-12 in the U.S. or internationally)
2. List as their school the name of the accredited home-schooling curriculum they follow
3. Have a “teacher” representative—whether that’s a parent or other tutor


Please say if you enter, and definitely if you win.
Good luck!

On December 17, 2020, Lysander Grey wrote, Does anyone have advice on writing “slice of life” stories? One of my current WIPs is a long-term story following the growth of the MC. That’s fine, and I do have it fairly planned, but I’m running into trouble with showing her changing and not bogging down the plot too much. I suppose it’s the doldrums in a sense, but rather necessary doldrums because the reader needs proof that she’s changing before she becomes someone different.

Right now I’m stuck in an area that needs multiple (mostly) happy scenes in a row before more Drama (TM) can get introduced, and… the only time I’m very good at happy scenes, unfortunately, is as setup for something to go Terribly Wrong. Happy scenes with no immediately linked tragic payoff are proving to be troublesome.                  

Erica wrote back, Could you try writing comedy? Not necessarily comedic scenes in your WIP, but a story whose entire purpose is to be funny. That way, you can experiment with having tension without drama, if that makes sense. And letting your characters play off each other can help show how your MC is changing, especially if she responds in an unexpected way.

I’m with Erica about small, unexpected changes in an MC that form a dotted line that the reader follows and thus understands her transformation.

It’s hard to write back-to-back happy scenes. Readers need something to worry about, although the worry can be mild, like an itch in the middle of your back. It’s not going to kill you, but it’s there, out of reach, and you have to keep reading to discover when and how it gets scratched.

(Clinically, there is such an itch, notalgia paresthetica, benign, long lasting, going away eventually, between your shoulder blades, perpetually an inch beyond your finger, invented by a minor demon in a mean universe. Mine did finally vanish.)

Lysander Grey’s question called to mind the novels of Kevin Henkes, especially The Birthday Room, which I remember as gentle and tender and full of slice-of-life. At the heart of the story is family conflict, but the conflict plays out among people who love each other. No one is tossed out or runs away. There’s no violence. I don’t think there’s even much anger. Yet my eyes were glued to the page. Kevin Henkes, in my opinion, is a master of slice-of-life and always worth reading.

I’m also thinking about Anne of Green Gables, which is a coming-of-age story, not dark, also full of slice-of-life moments (like dying her hair green, falling off a roof, breaking a slate over Gilbert Blythe’s head) that nudge Anne toward character change. Author L. M. Montgomery sets up Anne’s personality in technicolor detail: she has a temper and an imagination. She’s over-the-top dramatic, emotional, loving and lovable, and given to getting into funny and disastrous scrapes. Also, she’s capable of learning from the messes she gets into.

We can adapt Montgomery’s method. We think first about the transformation our plot calls for. Then we plan our MC. How can we make her different from what she needs to become? What traits will have to change? What will remain? She has to start out as someone we can imagine turning into the personality we need.

Next step takes us to the slice-of-life scenes. What can we cause to happen as a result of the person she is? For example, Anne hates her red hair, and she’s impulsive, which leads to an attempt to dye her hair the color she wants, resulting in green hair. This disaster plants a seed of a lesson that she shouldn’t instantly act on her impulses in the future. Erica’s idea comes in here; there’s a lot of humor in Anne’s scrapes.

For Anne, growth comes slowly and therefore believably. Montgomery sticks mostly to showing, but late in the book she does this little bit of showing: There were other changes in Anne no less real than the physical change. For one thing, she became much quieter. Perhaps she thought all the more and dreamed as much as ever, but she certainly talked less. We too can drop in a tiny bit of this, though most of the change should be shown in action, thoughts, and dialogue.

My novel that most features character transformation is The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre. My MC Perry is born into the underclass Bamarre but is raised as an overlord Lakti, and she’s ignorant of her birth. Lakti tend to be rigid, not highly emotional, restrained, direct, not literary. Bamarre are polite, accommodating, emotional, poets, and admirers of poetry.

Except for her love for poetry, Perry exemplifies the Lakti personality. When her origins are discovered, she has to live with her Bamarre family. A fairy tasks her with lifting her people out of servitude, but first she has to become more like them.

Though this is a fantasy, Perry doesn’t drink a potion. She has to work at changing herself, and she blunders in several slice-of-life scenes. The reader sees Bamarre life at the ground level, how they behave among themselves, how they act with Lakti, what their customs and habits are.

So what do we have?

  • A plot reason for a transformation.
  • A character designed to have difficulty making the change.
  • A character for whom success will be hard but believable when achieved.
  • Slice-of-life scenes through which we show our MC mess up on her way to change, whether she wants the change or not.

Here are three prompts:

  • The tortoise and the hare are about to race. Neither knows that the other is a shapeshifter. Both think they’re certain to win. Write the race.
  • The chicken’s wings have been clipped, yet she has to cross the road, a busy interstate, to save her chicks. Traffic is constant. She will have to become Super Chicken to do it. Don’t let her fail. Write the story.
  • The evil fairy has managed, fifty years ahead of time, to end the slumber of Sleeping Beauty and everyone in the castle. Her prince won’t be born for another thirty or so years. More important, though, the hedge is still intact and still impregnable. SB and everyone else will starve if they can’t get to the outside world. And if they do get out, chaos reigns in the kingdom after decades of misrule. Write the story of the transformation of SB from pampered royal to capable leader.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Order!

Happy New Year! Here’s hoping for a less challenging, all around easier 2022!

On December 6, 2020, ryne39720 wrote, Any thoughts on organizing stories? As I write, I find myself asking questions, making lists, adding comments, elaborations, and parenthetical remark upon parenthetical remark. I usually just switch fonts, add a space or two and write all this extra junk in with my WIP, but this makes it difficult if I want to find a specific piece of junk later. Many of my notes are scattered on different electronic devices and at least three notebooks. I’m also writing a lot of scenes out of order. On top of all that, I’ve got a bunch of post-it notes and drawings and maps. I need a new system! How do you stay organized while writing?

SluggishWriter wrote back, I try to keep my notes confined to a few places – I make notes on the document with my story, on one note-taking app, and one notebook. This helps keep it streamlined while still letting me make notes wherever I want. Sometimes I need to scribble down something quickly, so I’ll do it on a bit of paper and leave it inside the notebook. I also use post-its occasionally and I like to stick them inside the back cover of the notebook.

It can kind of be a mess sometimes, but having it all in one place usually makes things better! I also like having a note app that has a search function, so you can quickly title it something related to the book and find it again later.

As far as the actual notes inside the notebook go, I use a two-page spread and just jot things down wherever I want on the page, sometimes having to draw lines to separate different topics, or bubble a specific idea I want to remember. The chaos lets me be freer about writing down notes.

Both of you get many points for the kind of looseness that lets creativity rip!

Everyone works differently, and if your method works, don’t change anything. Here’s what I do:

Almost everything is on my laptop, and each book has a separate folder. I sometimes use a pad and actual pen for tiny things, like jotting down synonyms from my online thesaurus. Once in a blue moon, an idea arrives as I’m climbing into bed. These I write down by hand because opening my laptop with its blue light is a great way to stay awake for hours.

Just saying, I do not like writing with a pencil. When I’m writing by hand, I stick with a nylon-tip pen with blue or black ink, but online, I occasionally use the highlighter. Once or twice I’ve hand-drawn a map of my kingdom or a diagram of the inside of a building; these are simple and in no way art.

I write my books mostly chronologically. Often at the beginning, though, I need to go back to add bits that the reader needs to know, sometimes an entire scene or two. When I recognize that need, I put the scenes in. Or sometimes I don’t see the need until I’m revising my first or nth draft.

If a scene pops into my mind that I’m going to want later, which occurs rarely but does happen, I’ll write as much of it as comes to mind and some notes about the rest of it at the end of what I have in my story so far, after hitting return a few times or after a hard page. Same with my ending if ideas for that come along. (I almost always know my ending before I start to write but not how it will come about. If I have an idea for that, I don’t want it to slip away.)

But if I’ve added material at the end of my ongoing story that doesn’t come until later, I mark the end of the chronological part with xxx so I can find my place.

If I change direction significantly, I rename my story by increasing the version number at the end of the name of my document. For instance, the first version of my book about the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, A Ceiling Made of Eggshells, was called Alhambra 1. The next version, obviously, was Alhambra 2. (Alhambra was the city where the Spanish monarchs wrote the expulsion decree.)

My notes on my story are in a document called ideas in the book’s folder, and they generally keep pace with where I am in my story. In there, I write lists, wonder about what should happen next, what this character or that will say, what the setting looks and sounds and smells like. Sometimes I copy in bits of online research I’ve done, like snippets from Wikipedia. If a sentence or a paragraph doesn’t please me and I start to tense up, I copy it into ideas and work on it there. And I complain in there: I’m sleepy, who will want to read this—the doubts that I entertain as little as possible.

I keep a chronology of my story as I write it in its own document, called chronology. If I’m on top of my game, I also keep a running synopsis of each chapter, called synopsis, but I’m rarely that organized.

I’m a compulsive reviser even when I’m writing my first draft—this is not a productive quality. Don’t be like me if you don’t have to be. Inevitably I delete bits. Anything deleted that’s longer than a phrase gets copied into my document called extras, in case I change my mind and need it again.

Because I don’t remember, I keep an alphabetical list of my character names, called names.

Absolutely essential is my document, times, of my daily start and many stops and restarts. I never look backward in this to see how often I made my daily goal and how often I didn’t. That way lies madness!

Depending on the book, I may have other documents. For Ceiling, for instance, I had a document called glossary that listed the unfamiliar terms I learned in my research that I was likely to forget (like cortes, the parliament of the time, which was in no way democratic). I must have been lost in a title wilderness for The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre because I have several versions of a document called titles. Also in Lost Kingdom is a document called questions for RB (my editor).

So that’s my method. Here are three prompts:

  • Make a board game of your method of writing a story.
  • Your MC, Daedalus, who designed the labyrinth for King Midas has been trapped in it himself. He has his architectural plans in his belt, but his handwriting is so bad and his notes so scattered, he will need hours to determine which way to go to get out, but he doesn’t have hours—the Minotaur is on his way, and he’s murderously angry, as usual. Write what happens.
  • Your MC is a cultural anthropologist at a dig in north Africa, where bone fragments from several skeletons and part of a single skull have been found. The bones come from a previously unknown hominin species. The skull is damaged, suggesting its owner was killed by being clobbered. The thighbone of someone else shows a puncture. Bones from a single hand have arthritic changes that suggest repetitively holding something narrow, which may have been an arrow or a spoon. Or a pen??? Also found are bits of pottery from long before pottery is believed to have been invented. Your MC puts the clues together and writes a novel. Your job: write her story and, within it, her novel.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Free (Verse)

On November 19, 2020, Writing Cat Lover wrote, Do you think you could write a blog post of poetry? Specifically free-form? Does anyone here have any tips on that?

Katie W. did: I just finished a Poetry 1 class, and these were some of the things I learned.

1) Lines of poetry are not sentences. Don’t try to make them be. (This is one of the hardest things for me.)

2) Sound is very important. Assonance and alliteration can make or break a poem.

3) Syllable count is important even in free verse, to make sure the poem flows naturally.

4) Always read poems out loud and, if possible, have someone else read them to you. You catch all kinds of mistakes that way.

5) Word choice is critical. Always look for specifics, and avoid cliches and overly “tidy” or sentimental endings.

6) A line should end on a strong word and be “a world in and of itself” unless you have a very good reason for it not to be.

7) Find poets you like and read as much of their work as you can find. This will give you not only a better feel for their work, but a sense of what you want to do with your own.

If you have any more specific questions, feel free to ask, but this should get you started.

Writing Cat, I hope you’re still interested!

You all know I love to talk about poetry.

Terrific list from Katie W.! My favorite is #7. to read poets you like (and poets whose work you don’t know and sometimes poets whose work you don’t like, old poems and new poems).

I’m assuming that Writing Cat is thinking of free verse. The Poetry Foundation is a wonderful resource for all things poetry, and here’s its definition: Nonmetrical, nonrhyming lines that closely follow the natural rhythms of speech. A regular pattern of sound or rhythm may emerge in free-verse lines, but the poet does not adhere to a metrical plan in their composition.

There can (and inevitably will) be rhyme in free verse, but most of the rhymes will be internal, or within the line (just as, for example, free rhymes with be in this sentence). These rhymes are part of the sound or sonic quality of poetry.

Generally, when I teach poetry, I start by asking my students what makes a poem poem-y. A list ensues. Poets call out,

Rhyme

Meter

Lines

Stanzas

Similes and metaphors

Sounds, like alliteration and assonance

Images

A form, like a sonnet

Evoking feelings and mood

Repetition

A turn

Concision (no unnecessary words)

Word choice

Word placement (like E. E. Cummings, who scattered words across a page)

You may think of more. Individual poems don’t have all of these. Free verse doesn’t have end rhyme (at the end of a line) or meter. But even when we eliminate those two, we have a lot to work with.

Without meter, our lines can be any length, and they can be consistent or vary. They can end in punctuation (endstopped) or not (enjambed). Punctuation at the end of a line will cause a reader to pause. A reader will probably pause briefly for an important word without punctuation and will rush right on for an unimportant one, like and or the. We can try our lines more than one way and decide what feels best. Reading lots of poems will help us develop our taste.

We can break our poems into stanzas or not. The stanza breaks can come regularly, like every two lines for couplets or three lines for tercets, or more. Or the breaks can be irregular, and we can space them in the way we do with paragraphs when we’re changing direction a little.

We can start all our lines at the left margin or we can vary them. We can strew words and lines around as E. E. Cummings did.

You’ve been taught similes and metaphors, I’m sure. Some, like word choice, can lift a poem above the clouds. Responding to a prompt to write a poem from the POV of a widow whose husband drowned, I recently likened a breaker to a long arm, which also works as an image. I especially love images in poems. A fabulous poet for both images and word choice is Ted Kooser, who was the U.S. Poet Laureate from 2004 to 2006.

A thesaurus is particularly helpful in poetry: to find words that will give us the sounds we’re looking for, with word choice, rhyme and near rhyme or slant rhyme.

A traditional sonnet, which has both, wouldn’t be free verse, but some forms, like an epistolary poem (a letter poem), accommodate free verse. Forms abound, and I go to them for structure and ideas. Many work for free verse. A resource I often use is The Teachers & Writers Handbook of Poetic Forms, edited by Ron Padgett.

Many poems convey a mood and/or a feeling, usually subtly. We don’t generally say straight out that we’re sad or happy. In my widow poem, for example, the speaker of the poem says that she feels “maladapted to air,” which, I hope, reveals her unhappiness and even discomfort with her new state.

Repetition can help a poem feel poemy. Repeating the first word in a line even has a name, anaphora. Here are four lines of Christopher Smart’s Jubilate Agno, written in the eighteenth century:

For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.

For he is the servant of the Living God duly and daily serving him.

For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his way.

For this is done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness.

Be cautious, though. Anaphora can go on too long, leading the reader’s eye to jump over the repetition.

A turn happens when a poem goes in an unexpected direction near the end. Sonnets are known for their turns, and most have them, but this link will take you to a famous example in a free verse poem: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/47734/lying-in-a-hammock-at-william-duffys-farm-in-pine-island-minnesota. The poem also uses images magnificently.

Without concision, our poems are likely to read like prose arranged in lines. Question the necessity of almost every word. As for word choice, we can make ourselves crazy with this one, doubting our choices. I suggest leaning on a thesaurus and not sweating too much. Writing poems and reading poems will help over time.

Here are four prompts:

  • Write a free verse poem from the point of view of a person returning home after a natural disaster (hurricane, fire, tornado) hit her house. Cast your eye over the list above and use whatever you can.
  • Look up your horoscope for today and use it in a free verse poem.
  • Read Pablo Neruda’s “Ode to a Watermelon” here: https://silverbirchpress.wordpress.com/2013/07/06/ode-to-the-watermelon-poem-by-pablo-neruda/ and write a free verse ode, a poem of praise, to an inanimate object.
  • Ask more poetry questions here.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Which comes first?

I’m writing this on Thanksgiving morning, and I’m feeling grateful to all of you who follow the blog and particularly to you who chime in with questions and help for fellow writers!

And I’m aware that some of you are in the NaNoWriMo home stretch. I’m sending good wishes your way. By the time I post this you’ll be done and, I imagine, fast asleep. When you wake up, please let us know how it went and what you accomplished. Congratulations!

On November 19, 2020, Beth Schmelzer wrote, I just heard from publisher and editor Kiri, at MG Chicken Scratch Books, that you shouldn’t start with an inciting incident in the first scene or chapter, but you should ground the reader in the MC’s “normal.” What do you all think? She analyzed Dan Gemeinhart’s SCAR ISLAND with the 3 Turning Points on a webinar with the SCBWI Montana chapter last weekend.

Two of you responded:

Melissa Mead: I think you should do whatever works for that story. There’s no one right way to write.

Christie V Powell: The first scene doesn’t have to be the inciting incident (II), but it still should be an interesting hook, something crafted perfectly to show the character’s character. KM Weiland calls it a “characterizing moment”: https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/multi-faceted-characteristic-moment/

In my Mira’s Griffin, I opened with the main character climbing a cliff, being startled and falling off, and being rescued by a strange creature which turns out to be a griffin. Then she goes back to her normal world for a chapter and a half. The inciting incident is when she is captured by griffins. So the opening is still exciting and hints at the conflict to come, but the II isn’t until chapter 3.

I pulled another book off my shelf. High Sierra by Adrienne Quintana. The opening is when the main character arrives at a cabin and realizes her mother sent her to a “wilderness therapy” program. She’s judgmental of the “problem kids” and of her surroundings, but she’s relatable because of the conflict with her mother. The inciting incident is when their van sets out to drop off their group in the wilderness, and she meets their attractive wilderness guide.

My kids were just watching the movie Newsies in the car. It opens with setting up the setting, and introduces the main character “Jack” as someone who’s tough, respected by the other boys, and stands up for others. He speaks out against a bully, starts a fight, and manages to get away without punishment. The II comes a bit later, when the newspaper owner increases the prices the boys have to pay for newspapers.

I’m with both of you. There are no absolutes, or the only absolute is that whatever works is what we should do. The II doesn’t have to come in the first chapter, but it certainly can.

First off, the II is the event that charges up our plot, though I’m not sure I can pinpoint it in every book of mine or anyone else’s. The II can be something that happens to our MC (and possibly other characters too) or something our MC does. Confession: I never think about IIs when I write a story, although I think my books have them. Do you think about them? Are you a pantser or an outliner? I have to work backwards to talk about the II, to locate mine from a finished story.

We’re really talking about beginnings when we talk about the II anyway, and, for kids’ books certainly, the beginning has two parts: an II, to be sure, whenever it comes; and something that makes readers care, generally about our MC and sometimes about the MC’s world. In Lord of the Rings, for example, we care about Bilbo and about Middle Earth.

The worst example, in my opinion, of starting out by setting up the world of a story—though many readers love it—appears in the novel Hawaii by James Michener (high school and up). I don’t know how the book, which was published in 1959, would stand up to modern sensibilities or even to my current sensitivities, but I loved everything except the beginning when I was a teenager. The novel is about Hawaii and is told in several time periods, the first being the geologic formation of the island. Yawn. I never managed to read more than a page or two.

The II happens in my Ella Enchanted in the first paragraph, when Ella is cursed with obedience. Ella has no normal because she’s a newborn. I think the reader starts to care about her on the next page when she’s commanded (unintentionally) to eat her birthday cake, and she can’t stop.

In my The Wish, the II occurs in the prologue, which is a problem because many kids skip prologues. MC Wilma’s normal is set up in the first chapter, and the reader comes to care about her when her teacher reads out loud to her class a super embarrassing essay she’s written about how much her dog loves her.

But in my Fairest, the II happens on page 93. At least, that’s when I think it does. Before then, Aza hates being unattractive, but the consequences of everything are set in motion by something the queen does.

In Pride and Prejudice, I’m pretty sure we start to care about Elizabeth when Darcy refuses to dance with her and calls her looks “tolerable.” This may do double duty because it may also be the II. Or the II may come earlier when Mrs. Bennet says how much she wants her daughters to be married well. Even though Austen makes fun of her, the reader realizes how essential matrimony is for a woman who isn’t wealthy in her own right.

I’m not sure what the II is in my historical novel, A Ceiling Made of Eggshells. Trouble gathers slowly. Loma, my MC, is like the fabled frog in the slowly heated water. She and the reader don’t know what’s coming until it’s upon them. Or, the II may come when her grandfather becomes very attached to her and starts taking her with him when he travels—but at first that seems like a lucky break for her.

(About that frog, you probably know that frogs really can’t be lulled into allowing themselves to be boiled to death, but—argh!—according to Wikipedia, a lot of frogs suffered to prove that false.)

The normal establishes what’s at stake when matters start going south. That’s the worldbuilding that comes with every story we write. Sometimes the II doesn’t change the world, doesn’t change much at all. The normal in P&P stays the same after Darcy makes his disparaging remark. Please argue with me if you disagree.

One reason to establish normal first, though, is so that readers feel on solid ground and not flailing in deep water. Along those lines, my editor asked me not to introduce so many characters in the first chapter of Ceiling. In that case, I needed to set up normal more gradually.

On the other hand, unless my memory is wrong, here’s a story that has no normal: Alice in Wonderland. The reader never finds out what Alice’s life is like when she isn’t diving down rabbit holes.

The beginning is probably the part I revise the most because I write it when I’m least certain about how my story will unfold. This may not be true of people who outline extensively, or you may revise your outline’s beginning more than once.

It may be a tad strong for me to say that I hate when people say there’s just one way to do something in writing.  I guess I dislike it—a lot! Such advice is often constricting and can make us be hard on ourselves, especially at the beginning of a story when we’re particularly tender. I’ve talked about a few different approaches to the II, and you may, by experimentation or sheer brilliance, happen upon one that’s new to the rest of us. Don’t be afraid of it!

Here are three prompts:

  • Write a new first chapter for Alice in Wonderland that sets up her normal before her descent below ground. Another confession: I’m not fond of Alice, which seems to lack causality and be little more than a string of oddities. If you feel as I do, give her a reason for following that rabbit. Make something be at stake. If you need more than a chapter, go for it.
  • Write a prologue to the fairy tale “Rapunzel” that shows the normal for the witch and reveals why she wants a baby. This can be from the witch’s POV or not.
  • In the fairy tale “Beauty and the Beast,” not the play or the movie, the Beast comes to life only in the presence of Beauty or her father. Write a scene showing what he’s like when he’s alone—his normal.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Str-e-e-e-e-tch!

To you, pounding your keyboards in the NaNoWriMo dash, congratulations on passing halfway! I’m with you in spirit if not in fingers!

On November 17, 2020, Bri wrote, I’ve been writing short stories and have started a new one. The thing is, I want to write a longer story, but no matter what I do to my previous stories, I can’t lengthen them. I really want to write a 81-120 paged book, but I can’t do that if I only can write stories that are 10-25 pages. I’m really frustrated with myself for not being able to change anything. Anyone know how to create a longer story/lengthen an old story?

Erica wrote back, Make more things happen. When you feel like you’re reaching a good ending point, stop and think. What can I do to make this get worse instead of better? For example, if your characters are trying to find their way out of a maze, let them escape, but stick a dragon in the forest outside that they will have to get past in order to get back to their families. It might feel a little jerky at first, like you’re just stringing along a bunch of different short stories, but that’s what editing is for.

I’m with Erica on making everything worse. If we think of our whole story as a maze, for example, our job is, by hook or by crook, by character, plot, or world, to keep our MC wandering and lost as long as possible.

Suppose we take the fairy tale “Rumpelstiltskin” as an example. In my Lang’s Blue Fairy Book, the story is three pages long, a miracle of compression.

We can start by interrogating our too-short story. Imagine it, squirming under a too-bright light in a windowless room.

The impoverished miller has an audience with the king, and all he has is a beautiful daughter. To impress the king, he tells him that his daughter can spin straw into gold.

Huh?

These two start us thinking about the world the story is in: What’s the reason for the audience? Did the miller ask for it, or was he called to appear?

Now we begin to think about the characters of the miller and the king: What does the miller want from the audience? What does the king want? What causes the miller to make this wild claim about his daughter? Does he know something?

We can think about tentative answers to these questions and jot down some notes, maybe make a list or two. We probably don’t want to settle on anything yet.

But when we do settle, later on, our answers to these questions can fill a bunch of pages as we launch our story.

The daughter, when she appears before the king, is told she has the rest of the day and the whole night to spin a room full of straw into gold. If she fails, she’ll be executed.

Who is this king? What’s going through his mind when he sees her? Is he evil? Does he really plan to carry out his threat?

Does the daughter know going in that her father has made this crazy boast about her? How does she conduct herself in this, her own audience with the monarch? What does she think?

When the maiden is led into the room with the straw, she breaks down and cries because she doesn’t have the foggiest about how making gold from straw is accomplished.

If we want to stick with the original, we have to go with that. We can ask what’s happened in the past when she’s wept. Did crying get her what she wanted?

Or we can ask what the other possibilities are. Whatever we decide, we’re on the road to developing her character. From her thoughts and feelings we arrive at her actions—maybe just weeping.

And what about the setting? What’s the room like? Are guards stationed at the door? Rumpelstiltskin is about to arrive. How does he get in? And what about the straw? Is it clean? Or full of bugs and bits of—ugh!—cow pie? Might it have magical properties?

Rumpelstiltskin will spin the straw into gold in exchange for the daughter’s necklace. Whoa! She has a necklace? How impoverished is her father? Or is she independently wealthy? Just the necklace is worth a bunch of words.

Why does Rumpelstiltskin want a necklace if he can make gold out of straw? That’s just scratching the surface with him. Why does he come? He’s supposed to be the villain of the story, but he doesn’t act like a villain. There are myriad questions about him. If you feel like it, jot down ten more.

Rumpelstiltskin and the daughter are together for hours each time. Do they talk? What happens while they’re together? Does it really take him the whole night? Does she go to sleep?

Beyond the immediate problem of transmuting straw, what do these characters—the king, the miller’s daughter, Rumpelstiltskin, the miller—want? What’s in the way? What in their natures help or hinder them?

Who is telling the story?

Does our story have to end the way the fairy tale does? How else might it end up?

As we explore our ideas, our story fills out. Basically, we ask ourselves: What is unknown—about our characters, our plot twists, our world?

Having said all this, however, there are writers who excel at the short story, for whom the short story length is exactly right. Their stories appear in journals and magazines and zines. They put them together to make collections—which are as long as a novel.

Here are three prompts:

  • Write an entire story of twenty-five pages or more about what happens during the first night the miller’s daughter and Rumpelstiltskin are in the room with all the straw. Give it a beginning, middle, and end. Develop their characters and the world they live in. For extra credit, make the rest of the fairy tale unnecessary when you’re done.
  • Your MC is lost in a maze, and so is your villain, who is lost too. They aren’t together, but if they meet he’s armed and she isn’t. The other dangers are starvation, snakes, frigid nights, and anything else you like. What’s more, her baby brother will die if she doesn’t get out in, say, three days. Write the story or the novel, but make sure you write at least thirty pages.
  • Turn “Rumpelstiltskin” into four linking short stories from four different POVs: the miller, the king, the miller’s daughter, and Rumpelstiltskin.

Have fun and save what you write!

Being the Editor

To those of you who have just started NaNoWriMo: Yay for you! Kudos for every word! If you have questions as you chug along, please post them here. I probably won’t get to them quickly, but other writers likely will. Break a leg—but no fingers or hands!

On October 27, 2020, Katie W. wrote, How do you get better at editing? I ask because one of my WIP’s is my late grandmother’s novel (I mentioned this back in June, asking how to blend our styles), and I really, really, really want to do a good job on it. My grandfather is so proud of what she did (some of her shorter stories won awards) and I want to make him proud, too. But while some of the work that needs to be done is fixing consistencies in POV and deleting infodumping and such, it’s around 175,000 words, so it really needs some major shortening. The problem is, when I’ve tried to do things like that on my own work, I mangled it until it only made sense to people who already knew the characters, and I can’t afford to do that here. Any advice?

A short back-and-forth followed.

Christie V Powell: Using beta readers should help with taking out relevant information, especially if you can find new ones each time who haven’t read the story before.

Have you considered splitting the story into two or three books? You’d be able to keep more of your grandmother’s work and still have a good-sized book. Would the structure allow for that?

Katie W.: Beta readers would definitely help, but I’m not sure I could find enough of them willing to take on the whole thing. And I don’t think I can split it. It’s long, but it’s all one story, if that makes sense. There’s a side plot about the MC’s parents that I might be able to take out, but I haven’t actually finished transcribing the story from my grandmother’s notebooks, so it could be absolutely vital to the climax or something like that. I have about three-fifths of the story, but I haven’t been able to go back and transcribe the rest of it. Not like that absolutely has to keep me from working on it. By this point, I’m starting to think it’s just a convenient excuse.

I’m very aware that Katie W.’s question came in a year ago and she may have completed the revision. If so, how did it go? How much did you cut? What strategies worked for you?

Before starting the editing, we might revisit the short stories the writer (Katie W.’s grandmother) completed. How long are they, for one thing? Do they tend to be almost novellas? How resolved are the endings? What did she seem to delight in writing? And any other questions that suggest themselves. We should write down our questions and the answers we come up with.

We can also think about what she said about her writing. We might ask other people as well as consulting our own memory. What seems to have been most important to her? Character? Plot? Setting? Theme? We write this down too.

When we go into her manuscript, we can keep these matters in mind.

As important as everything else, we have to remember that we have our own esthetic. We can’t become the original writer because that simply isn’t possible. We need to respect the artistic choices we make that arise out of what we like, what we think is interesting, exciting, and pleasing. We aren’t destroying. We’re respectfully shaping and adapting the manuscript. Later, someone else (your granddaughter, Katie W.?) may want to take the work in another direction.

Next, we might start on the manuscript itself, but before we do, this is important: Unlike almost everything else on the blog, we’re not editing our own work. The process is different. If we’re editing a living writer, we don’t want to be mean, but we owe it to that person to be honest and follow our truest ideas in the changes we make, even if we suspect they may not be welcomed. If the writer is absent from the process, there may be other people who are emotionally invested, but we still can’t let things stand that don’t serve the story.

Our first step can be to create a few new documents:

  • A chapter-by-chapter synopsis.
  • A list of characters with a brief description of each one and their role in the plot.
  • A timeline.

More are possible:

  • A paragraph or two about the themes as we understand them.
  • A plot summary in a paragraph or two.

Once we have these, we linger over them. We ask questions—and write them down along with possible answers: Do we need every chapter? Can some be combined? Do some plot or character developments repeat unnecessarily? Do we need every character? Can a few be combined? If the plot can’t be summarized in two paragraphs it may be overcomplicated. Can we simplify it to give it more force? Is the timeline stretched out? Can we compress to provide more urgency?

On a more general level: What did we admire? What did we not like? Were there places where our attention wandered? Was there too much telling? Not enough showing? Or were there spots where the showing could be summarized by telling? Does some description go on too long? Dialogue too?

However, even in a manuscript that’s too long, there may be places that we need to expand. If the story demands it, we have to do it. Take a deep breath.

My most helpful teacher when I was starting out, Margaret (Bunny) Gabel (who retired long ago), used to say that a book should be is long as it needs to be. Some are very long—David Copperfield, Moby Dick, The Da Vinci Code—to name just three.

Here are three Bible-based prompts:

  • Put the Bible story of the plagues on Pharoah into your own tale. Choose an Egyptian character for your MC, who could be someone in Pharoah’s family or a farmer or a servant—or someone else. God sends ten plagues. Meaning no disrespect, three of them involve insects. That’s a lot of bugs! Use as few or many plagues as you like to tell the story and keep it tight.
  • Noah is supervising the entry of animals to his ark. There are many more than he expected. He had no idea there were so many species. Rain is falling in fat droplets and the line stretches farther than he can see. What’s more, three people appeal to him to let them on, enumerating their blameless lives. Write the story.
  • Back to Noah for a contemporary version, which may involve a bit of research. The ark is moored in the port of Los Angeles, fully loaded with people and other animals but stuck in a supply-chain mess. Two hundred cargo ships are lined up ahead of them to leave the port.  Rain is falling. Write the story.

Have fun, and save what you write!

The PP

On October 19, 2020, Kit Kat Kitty wrote, I was wondering what everyone’s plotting process is like? (For those of us that plot, of course.) I know I’m a plotter (pantsing has never worked out for me), but I haven’t quite figured out my plotting method, and I figured it might help to find out how everyone else does it and test out some different methods.

Christie V Powell wrote back, I say this a lot, but I use KM Weiland’s system, which she describes on her blog helpingwritersbecomeauthors. I write down the basic steps that I want, and then use it as an outline. Here’s the brief overview I have (hopefully, my abbreviated version makes sense).

Act 1.A: Set up characters, motivations, world rules, Stakes, potential to win

Hook- inciting question

Characteristic moment: introduce Main Character (MC)

Ends with Inciting Incident: story is set in motion

Act 1.B: Normal World

Ends with First Major Plot Point- MC commits to act

Act 2.A:

Reaction: MC scrambles to understand obstacles, gains skills and weapons

MC punished for Lie, moves closer to Want but further from Need

Ends in First Pinch Point: Reminder of BG, MC gains new clues

Act 2.B:

Ends at Midpoint: MC discovers the Truth, moves to proactive

Act 2.C:

Reactive: MC’s reactions more informed, caught between Truth and Lie.

Truth is blatantly stated.

Ends with Second Pinch Point: Reminds MC of Stakes

Act 2.D:

False Victory: MC renews attack on BG, seems to win

Ends in Third Plot Point: Low point, forces to confront the Lie, MC chooses Need over Want, death is often symbolized or used outright.

Act 3.A:

Assembles characters/props, Fulfills foreshadowing.

Ends with Trigger: Up stakes, MC demonstrates change, caught between Truth and Lie. Subplots tied off.

Act 3.B

Climax: Confrontation between MC and BG. Lie vanquished.

Climactic Moment: conflict resolved.

Resolution: Tie off loose ends, show change, give preview of new life

I’ve seen several similar systems. Save the Cat (and Save the Cat Writes a Novel) is a popular one. Story Genius by Lisa Cron is another.

A year later (today—10/4/21), I asked Christie V Powell to define BG, and she wrote this: I used “BG” to stand for “bad guy” (the antagonist).

I don’t know if this would help or just be overwhelming, but I did just write a new blog post that went into depth about my plotting method. It’ll have more information, and hopefully spell things out a little better:

https://thespectrabooks.blogspot.com/2021/10/the-cvp-method-story-structure.html.

I’m sure Christie V Powell’s method gives a writer security, which I’d love to have, but I’m part pantser, and we live on the edge. I hope my stories have rising action and a climax and falling action, but I don’t think about those things, or I haven’t so far.

I start with notes in which I jot down my thoughts about a possible story. Sometimes, just thinking brings me to find a knot I can’t untangle, or can’t untangle yet, so I drop the idea into a deep hole in my mind, where I hope it will simmer and untie itself (can take years). Many of my notes are questions, which I may answer or leave open.

I write lists of possibilities for what may happen. Always, I search for an ending, because I can’t start unless I have imagined the finish, which is where I part company with complete pantsers. I was a complete pantser until I got tired of getting horribly lost in book after book. So this is one strategy: We can think about how we want our story to resolve itself.

In my notes, I often write about what my story looks like if I shape it as a quest based on either what my MC wants or needs or what terrible circumstance she’s landed in. The Two Princesses of Bamarre is a great example. I had intended to write a novelization of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” but there were mysteries baked into the fairy tale that I couldn’t figure out, like why the dancing princes were enchanted. From somewhere along the way of attempting to write the story, I introduced a terrible disease. Eventually—it didn’t happen instantly—I realized that a quest for its cure could be the heart of the story, which would be an original fairy tale, and I was able to write it.

Most or maybe all of my fiction can be expressed as a quest. My historical novel Dave at Night is a quest for a home. Fairest is Aza’s quest for relief from her own dislike of her looks. Ogre Enchanted, like Ella Enchanted, is a quest for spell release. Sometimes, I don’t see the quest until I finished writing. But we can be more intentional about our quest for a quest. That’s another strategy: Express our plot as a quest and see if that helps it take shape.

Once we see the goal, we think about the impediments (like BGs) we can put in the way for our MC, and we can also decide what can help her. I bet you (not me) can use this quest structure to set up your rising actions, climaxes, and falling actions.

We can write a one-page summary of our story as we envision it. If it were a fairy tale, we can ask ourselves, how would it go? (We don’t need to be writing fantasy to do this. We’re just going for a story shape.)

Lately, I write an actual outline, a short one, recording events I want to make happen. I just looked at my outline for Ogre Enchanted, which can be called an outline, really, only by a partial pantser. It’s full of questions that often aren’t answered. Once I started writing the book, I mostly forgot about the outline.

That’s another strategy. We can write a short outline reflecting how, at that moment, we want our story to go, but we don’t have to attach ourselves to it with leg irons. Pure outliners, I think, change course too, but they fix the outline along with the story, so they can see how the shift affects everything that’s to come. I rarely do that. Once I start writing, I follow my characters and what they do. Still, a corner of my brain is keeping an eye on the plot and remembering where I want to go.

Character is super important to me, but plot has primacy. I’m a plot driven, rather than a character-driven writer. Alas, plot is harder for me than character is, which is why I like to use ancient stories—like fairy tale, myth, or history—as frameworks I can hang my plot on. Many writers do this, including Shakespeare!

Suppose we want to write a love story, well, we have a trove of fairy tales at our disposal. Or say we want to write about poverty, we can use “Hansel and Gretel.” If we want to bring to life the end of a civilization, we can read up on the fall of Rome in history or Troy in mythology. For self-deception, there’s always “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”

I’m hoping that my next novel will be a historical murder mystery about the death of a Jewish moneylender in 13th century England. I’ve just started my research, and the conditions for Jews rich or poor back then were difficult and precarious. The question that I’m asking myself is: What can I balance the sadness with—what hope? what happiness?—that will make this work as a book for kids? The question is an early step in my plotting process—as an example of how I do it.

Here are four prompts. You may have seen them coming:

  • Use “Hansel and Gretel” as the basis for a contemporary story about a mother and father with two kids to support in grinding poverty and the choices they make. Who will the gingerbread witch be? Write the story.
  • Write a love story about a selkie and a human. Decide whether or not it’s a tragedy.
  • Do a little or a lot of research as the basis of a story about the downfall of a civilization. Write the story.
  • Write a story about self-deception based on “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”

Have fun, and save what you write!

Knotted Brainwaves

On October 16, 2020, Katie W. wrote, What do you do when you just get stuck? Like when you know what needs to happen next, but not quite how to get there? In my WIP, I need to clear up a question the characters have, then write about a few battles before setting up a major plot twist and doing something with a subplot that’s been lurking in the background. I can explain what I need to do, I just can’t quite actually make myself do it. (Which was probably a big part of all the rambling in an earlier version.) Any advice?

In solidarity, Melissa Mead wrote, I’m in the same boat.

I’ve been on that leaky raft many times too, and sometimes the water is up to my chin before I get to dry land.

And Christie V Powell wrote, When I’m stuck, I usually switch to paper. Something about writing on paper often sparks my creativity again and gets me going. Sometimes it’s the scene I need, but usually I end up brainstorming or short-hand “blocking”. It gets pretty messy. Maybe it’s just that I know there is no way any but me will be able to read it anyway.

I like that! I’m a keyboarder all the way, but many writers swear that using the hand and arm engages the brain most wonderfully.

Urgency is not a writer’s friend, not my friend anyway. I found this lovely quote from a Wall Street Journal interview with mystery/crime/humor (and more) writer Lawrence Block: “When I’m working on something, and can devote myself entirely to it, I’ll put in a long stretch of hours.  But much of that time I don’t really seem to be doing anything.  I check email, I surf some websites, I check my Kindle sales several times an hour, I play computer solitaire, I play non-computer solitaire, and somewhere in there a couple thousand words get written.”

Look him up on Wikipedia and gape at the number of books he’s written, both under his own name and under pseudonyms, which he probably uses because his publisher can’t keep up with him. His books are fun—high school level at least.

I’m not that relaxed about writing, and I rarely put in a long stretch, either. When I check emails or play solitaire, I take myself off the clock. But I agree with the principle, that being tense doesn’t help. We distract our mind with other stuff, but our story still lurks in the background, which may be why ideas come when we’re hiking (especially if we forgot to bring a pad and pen) or in the shower, etc.

Lately, I remind myself that I’ve been stuck hundreds of times and gotten unstuck, so I’ll almost certainly do so again. Katie W., I see by consulting the blog dashboard that you’ve been commenting here for over two years and, I’d guess, have been writing for longer than that. You, too, can use the refrain: I’ve done it before.

Here are some strategies I use when I’m stuck:

My main go-to is my notes. Some of what I write there is about my story and why I can’t seem to write it. A lot is whining and worrying, as in, What if never write another book? or I should know what I’m doing by now. Whether I’m whining or story-speculating, though, my time is on the clock. I’m writing, so it counts. (This is one reason my daily goal is in time rather than words or pages.)

In my notes, I often write lists of what might happen next. A list may yield something surprising and unexpected and may be enough to get me moving again.

I may take a walk in our beautiful backyard, where the flowers in the warm seasons or our glacial-era rocks in the winter smooth out my knotted brainwaves. Or I may walk on our treadmill. If on the treadmill, I don’t consider this exercise. I set the speed at super slow, like two miles an hour, and keep redirecting my slippery mind to my writing problem. Sometimes it works.

Being stuck often makes me sleepy. I take a short nap, twenty minutes, max, and wake up refreshed. Sometimes that works.

(No single thing always works.)

As I’ve said here more than once, my mystery Stolen Magic gave me the worst and longest case of Stuck of any book. In despair, I decided to take a month off writing to do other things and recharge, which felt weird. I was sure this would do the trick. It didn’t. I was exactly as stuck when I returned to my manuscript as I had been before. But this may work for you, and you may have heirloom silver cutlery you’ve been meaning to polish for years.

Sometimes, revising my latest five-to-ten pages gets me moving again.

A good remedy more than once has been to find the spot in my story when my fingers started to feel mired in mud. I interrogate myself about what’s going on there. Did I accidentally solve a problem I need to keep unresolved? Did I start a tangent that will send me writing in circles and doesn’t have much to do with my main conflict? Did I make a minor character too important? It’s like the knots that seem to knot themselves when I sew on a button or repair a seam. Work stops. If I can’t untangle the knot, I have to cut it out and start with new thread from that spot. If we can identify the source of the evil, we can delete it and keep going.

Or I may interrogate myself about what’s coming up. Am I stuck because I see trouble ahead? Katie W. writes: I need to clear up a question the characters have, then write about a few battles before setting up a major plot twist and doing something with a subplot that’s been lurking in the background.

We can ask ourselves what interests us most in our plot to-do list. For me, if it were the major plot twist, I might jump to that part—in my notes—and write it. If I’m happy with it, I’ll copy it into my story. Then I’ll see what light it casts on everything else in my list. Maybe the plot twist itself answers the question or sheds new light on it. I can ask myself if I need the subplot. If yes, I may be able to reveal it quickly or wrap it in with the pot twist. I can ask myself how I can use the battles to develop or resolve my major conflict so that they’re integral to my plot.

Katie W., since you asked your question a long time ago, what’s happened? Where does your story stand right now?

Here are three prompts:

  • Your MC has stepped into magical quicksand. It’s below her ankles but it’s gluey enough to hold her. If she struggles, she’ll sink faster. Even not sinking farther isn’t good enough because a squadron of enemy soldiers are approaching. Write how she frees herself—or fails to.
  • Your MC is the innkeeper’s daughter who’s stuck to the golden goose. She had a reason for touching the goose, and it wasn’t greed. (You can refresh your memory of “The Golden Goose” fairy tale—the Brothers Grimm version—by googling it.) She needs a feather and to not remain stuck to the goose in order to save the life of the princess who never laughs. Write the story.
  • In this conception of the Camelot story, Guinevere is your MC. As a child, she studied with Merlin, and he foretold for her the downfall of Camelot, which she has sworn to prevent. She contrives to meet King Arthur in order to change the trajectory but gets sucked into events—and stuck. Write the story.

Have fun, and save what you write!