On-the-Nose Prose

Just letting you know: The snow date for my talk in Brewster, NY, is this coming Sunday, February 3rd, and it looks like the weather is planning to cooperate. Details are here on the website.

On December 7, 2018, Bethany wrote, I suffer with being too on-the-nose. I feel like I just say they ‘walked’ or whatever without using any nicer words to make good prose.

Which reminds me, any tips for good prose?

I wrote back, Can you say more about what you’re looking for in terms of tips and good prose?

Bethany explained: I guess I just feel like my prose isn’t as pretty or nice as some other people’s prose. E.g., their prose is: “The truck leaped down the dirt road, leaving a cock’s tail of dust blooming behind it,” or something like that and mine is more like: “The truck drove down the road, and smoke came up behind it.” A minor exaggeration, but I hope you see what I mean. Is this a matter of editing, and if so, what’s the best thing to do to fix it?

Melissa Mead wrote, I wish I knew where to find a movie that I watched in school. Basically, it showed a student writing about a field trip to the airport. They’d written “The engines made a loud sound. The jet went down the runway very fast, and took off.”

It highlighted “made a loud sound” Then it superimposed various images over the moving jet: a lion roaring, people screaming, etc. Then it did the same for “went very fast”: a gunshot, a sprinter, etc.

Then they chose the words that seemed to fit the best, and ended up with “Engines shrieking, the jet raced down the runway and took off.”

I think it helps. I still remember it after 35-40 years, anyway.

Melissa Mead, I wish I’d gone to your school! What a great way to present lively writing!

Bethany, just saying, a “cock’s tail of dust” is a terrific image! So I wouldn’t knock your prose.

Mark Twain wrote, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.” I love this quote!

I’ve said this before on the blog: that nouns and verbs pack more power than any other part of speech. In Melissa Mead’s example, the verbs get most of the revision. Made a loud sound becomes shrieking, and went very fast becomes raced. I’d argue that lifted or soared would have been better than took.

The revision is also shorter, eleven words to seventeen, a big drop. So, often, concision is a part of fine prose. In the original, we see made a loud sound replaced by one word, likewise went very fast.

Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style is a jewel of concision, and I recommend it, as I have before. Yes, it’s old-fashioned, but the sentences are oh-so elegant. I’ve read them over and over again, just to savor them. And the book offers guidance in how to achieve such beauty.

Then there’s sentence variety. The two sentences in the Melissa Mead’s original each start with TheThe engines and The jet–which creates a static feel. The revision is one complex sentence that starts Engines shrieking.

But, of course, if there were a second sentence that began, Air-conditioning humming... the revision would feel static, too. We want to mix it up: different beginnings; short sentences next to long, single-clause sentences following many-clause ones.

Not that there’s anything wrong with simplicity. Think of Hemingway! Think of Elmore Leonard! (Both high school and up–and each unlike the other.)

Straightforward is good. We don’t want to get so fancy that the reader can’t understand us. In prose that isn’t experimental, clarity trumps everything else. Also, I don’t want to read writing that calls attention to its high-flown verbiage. I want prose to get out of the way of the story. Maybe on the third reading, when I’m a little less enthralled, I can admire the beautiful sentences that underlie the urgent storytelling.

When I finish a manuscript, I always have to trim. In the process, I pay particular attention to my adverbs and adjectives, especially the ones that weaken, like a little, somewhat, half, almost. Even very, which seems to be strengthening, often isn’t. Sometimes we need these modifiers, but most of the time what we need more is to be bold. I’ve mentioned here before the frequent unnecessariness of the modifier could, as in she could see. If she could and did see, then she saw.

Similes and metaphors can liven up prose. My MC’s brother in the expulsion book is a tad unpleasant. He has mean names for his siblings, like he calls a sister Nut-cheeked Squirrel, and he calls my MC Unblinking Lizard. In revenge–but not out loud–she calls him Ugly Camel Head. This is metaphorical language, but it isn’t lofty, and it does double-duty by suggesting what these characters look like. We can think of metaphorical comparisons when we write description, but I don’t think we should strain for them. If they come, they come. We can help them flow in by reading writers whose prose is chock full of them, and then we can imitate, as I recommended recently in my post on style.

We can pay attention to the sounds of the words we write, something that’s become easier for me since attending poetry school. We can add alliteration and assonance (dig the four a’s in a row just now!) if we feel they’ll shine up our prose–or we can eliminate them if they annoy us.

We can think about rhythm, too. To get a rhythm going, we can deliberately repeat sentence structure and particular words. This is a technique to use sparingly.

When I’m not happy with a paragraph or even a sentence, I copy it into my notes and copy it again to work on. I may rearrange clauses to make them more natural. If I notice a stream of short sentences, I’ll work on making a few of them compound–or vice versa. If I’m not satisfied, I’ll start over. All the while, if this is a first draft, I’ll be thinking, Why am I doing this now? I may cut the whole thing. And then I keep at it!

When a word doesn’t nail what I’m going for, I open a thesaurus in my browser. I like Power Thesaurus, but Thesaurus.com is good, too, and I’m sure there are others. In the thesaurus, I may go through page after page, and I may click on a synonym to see what its synonyms are.

Sparkling prose uses the active voice. There were twelve angry men in the jurors’ room. is passive. Twelve angry men congregated in the jurors’ room. is active. I hope you agree that it’s stronger. I pay attention to my use of there when I’m revising.

I was once, long ago, reading somewhere about grade level in writing. This learned paper said that prepositions push up grade level. Okay. That may be true, because a reader has to be a better reader to hack her way through prepositional gunk. I copied this sentence: I want to de-layer the organization–creating a closer day-to-day relationship and clearer line of sight for myself into the business. from this website: https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-bureaucratese-1689186. Three prepositions. I think the sentence means: I need to see what’s going on. We should avoid language that obfuscates–or, to say it as it should be said, We should write so that the reader knows what we mean.

Two howevers on these last two points: Writing rules are meant to be broken when breaking them improves our writing. And it is great fun to write a character who speaks in endless, convoluted sentences–but we can’t let him talk too much!

Finally, my writing is sensory, and I like that in other writers, too. I want to be in any scene I’m reading, hearing the engine shriek, seeing it lift off, feeling the hot wind it creates, smelling the gasoline. As we write, we can keep asking ourselves if we’re bringing in the senses. Will our reader be able to see, hear, smell, taste, touch what’s going? We don’t want to overburden every moment with all of these, but we should keep them in mind.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Write dialogue between the queen’s Third Minister for Royal Orange Squeezing and a farmer. The farmer has a complaint, and the minister doesn’t want anyone to be blamed. The farmer’s words are knives, but the minister’s mouth produces only fog.

∙ Pick a paragraph from a magazine or newspaper, basically from anywhere, but not written by you. Rewrite it at least three times. Make it better. Make it worse. Write it in bureaucratese. Put it in the voice of your cat if he could speak.

∙ In your WIP, find a place where you’ve just introduced a character and are describing him physically. Think of a metaphor or simile to bring your description to life–an animal, mineral, vegetable, bit of architecture that he resembles.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Nobody’s Perfect

First a reminder of two events: tomorrow (Thursday, January 17th) at the New York Society Library in New York City, and Sunday (January 20th) at The Studio Around the Corner here in Brewster, New York–although that one may have to wait for the snow date on February 3rd. For details, click on In Person here on the website. If anyone can make it, I’d love to see you!

On November 16, 2018, Emma wrote, I’m an aspiring 13-year-old writer and really appreciate your blog! I was wondering if you had any advice on developing character flaws. I kind of want my characters to be ‘perfect,’ but I know that’s not realistic and the readers need to be able to connect with the characters. Thanks for any suggestions!

Melissa Mead wrote back, Have their flaws grow out of their strengths. For example, if they’re very smart, they might look down on people who aren’t. Maybe without even realizing that they’re doing it.

Kit Kat Kitty wrote back, too, Characters can also have flaws because of the situation they’re in. One of my characters was raised in a strict order, so she has no idea how the rest of the world works, so she needs someone to help her. Her aunt also died to save her, so she feels like she has to do something to make her dead aunt proud. She’s also amazingly headstrong. My other character was the sole survivor of a massacre in his village, so he doesn’t like to attach himself to people, although he is a lady’s man. And my other character was taken from her parents when she was a child to be raised in the same order as the first character I mentioned, so she has trust issues, and some identity issues, and her lover dies.

I am not very nice to my characters, am I? So the point is, characters can have emotional scares or be thrust into situations they can’t handle to bring out their flaws.

Yay, Emma, for wanting to give her characters flaws! We all have ‘em; our characters need ‘em.

Early in the life of the blog, people kept posting about Mary-Sue characters, and I asked who or what a Mary Sue is. Some on the blog were kind enough to explain: a Mary Sue (or Marty Stu) is perfect! She can solve any problem, and almost everyone loves her. Those who don’t are eventually revealed as villains. You can read about the Mary-Sue trope on Wikipedia.

My husband and I have been watching The Amazing Mrs. Maisel–definitely high school and up–on TV, and, in the second season, I’ve noticed that the writers have given Mary-Sue attributes to their eponymous MC. For example, a brilliant but eccentric artist, after meeting Mrs. Maisel for just a few minutes, is so smitten with her that he shows her his masterpiece, which no one else has been allowed to see. She hasn’t done anything so extraordinary as to merit this honor. Grr…, I thought, about a show I generally like.

We don’t want our readers to be similarly irritated.

I agree with both Melissa Mead and Kit Kat Kitty. Flaws can come from strong points and from backstory.

They can also come from plot. Here on the blog I seem to go back often to “Snow White.” Snow White is about as Mary Sue as a character can get, since the prince falls madly in love with her even though she seems to be dead!

But she has flaws baked into the plot that we can exploit. The dwarfs warn her not to trust anyone who comes to their cottage, but she seems incapable of taking their advice and repeatedly opens the door. She lets the evil queen lace her bodice and comb her hair and feed her a poisoned apple. Earlier in her story, she has no suspicions about her stepmother’s character. What character flaw or flaws can we derive from her behavior?

∙ She’s stupid. This is low-hanging fruit because she sure seems stupid.

∙ She is determined to see the best in everyone and willing to go to great lengths to prove she’s right, hanging onto the conviction that the old lady didn’t mean to lace her up so tight and wasn’t aware of the comb’s properties. She may even worry that the old lady, in her innocence, was herself harmed by the comb. When she shows up for the third times, Snow White is relieved.

∙ She’s defiant. When the dwarfs tell her not to let anyone in, it’s inevitable that she will.

∙ She’s almost as vain as the evil queen. She wants to be laced up tight to make her waist as small as possible and wants the curls that the comb is guaranteed to provide. The apple is touted as great for her complexion. She can’t resist.

I’m sure there are other flaws that can explain her behavior. For an early prompt, list three more.

The next step is to consider which of the flaws interests us most and which expands our plot and gives us new ideas for conflict.

We can use the same strategy for minor characters, like the dwarfs. What flaws can they have that might lead Snow White to welcome the old lady? We probably don’t need to develop all seven in depth. One or two will do. So what might their flaws be?

∙ One may be a neat freak. If anything is the slightest bit out of place when he and his fellows come home from mining, he has a tantrum. Snow White is scared to move when she’s alone.

∙ One has a terrible temper. The other dwarfs and Snow White tiptoe around him.

∙ One is grudging about her presence and makes clear that she has to earn her keep by cleaning and cooking.

∙ Another is a slob. Snow White is forever cleaning up after him.

And so on. There must be more.

For another flaw-creating strategy, we can make a list, and you all know how much I love them. We can write down every fault we can think of. For this, we don’t want super-villain flaws, like a desire for world domination. We want garden-variety shortcomings. Here are a few:

∙ absentmindedness
∙ forgetfulness
∙ being a tad self-centered
∙ talking too much
∙ overconfident
∙ under-confident
∙ can’t keep a secret

For another early prompt, list twelve to twenty more. It may help to think of the foibles of people you know and even of yourself. What drives you crazy in them and in yourself?

Once you have your list, cast your eyes along it. Mark the ones that appeal to you. Jot down some notes about how you might give one or more of them to your MC and how the flaws will contribute to your story, and also how these flaws mesh with what you already know about her.

Then, as you continue writing or move into your story, remember to bring them in as your flawed character acts, speaks, and thinks.

Here are three prompts, in addition to the ones above:

∙ It’s November. Your flawed MC and her flawed best friend take on NaNoWriMo. Write the tale of their month. Use their flaws both to help and hinder them from reaching their goals. Decide if one or both of them succeeds and if they’re still friends at the end.

∙ Pick three different flaws for Snow White–or any fairy tale MC. Write a synopsis of the story three times, showing how the flaw influences the way the plot develops. If you like, choose one and write the whole story.

∙ I just looked at the Wikipedia entry for the Hindenburg disaster. Sabotage was suspected as a cause but never proved, and there were other, technical possibilities. Along these lines, read up on the Hindenburg disaster or any other terrible event. Develop flawed characters who influence the way history plays out. This is fiction, so you can change anything–introduce a dragon or zombies, set it in the future or the Middle Ages. Write the story.

Have fun and save what you write!

Recognizing Your Style–and Everybody Else’s

Happy new year! Thanks to all of you, who make this blog a writer’s haven!

For any who will be in the New York City area on January 17th, I’ll be giving a writing workshop and talk at the New York Society Library. Details are on the In-Person page here on the website.

Thanks to everyone who suggested titles for my expulsion book! I’m putting together a list of possibilities for my editor, and I’ll let you know what happens. If her answer turns out to be None of the Above, as I fear, I’ll come back for more help.

On October 12, 2018, Melissa Mead wrote, How do you identify your writing style? I’m thinking of sending “Malak’s Book” to an agent, and one of the things they want in the query letter is examples of authors with a similar style.

I know who I WISH I wrote like, but how can I tell if I actually DO?

Melissa Mead later added this: Many years ago I sold a series to a magazine, and the editor encouraged me to submit stories to the later issues anyway, but under a pseudonym. So I did. I also used a different address, phone #, you name it. Here’s what happened:

Editor: “Nice story, Melissa, but I’m afraid we won’t be using it.”
Me: “How’d you know it was me?”
Editor: “I recognized your style.”

I had a style! I’d only been writing for publication for 2 years, and I had a recognizable style! I was giddy.

MAN, I wish I’d thought to ask him what it was.

Raina replied, CPs (critique partners) are a big help here. Often, they can see things that we can’t, or see things in a different way than we do. You can also make a list of things that you write a lot or write really well; are your books funny? Do you write beautiful descriptions? Thrilling action sequences? Literary or philosophical things? (A CP can also help with this.) After that, just find authors who are a match for some or all of those attributes.

Also, do they specifically want you to list authors with a similar style, or just comp titles in general? Because with the latter, it doesn’t have to be an exact match, just books/authors whose readers might also like your book. Most people use the same ones, to be honest, which just shows how un-specific they are. For example, in YA Fantasy, Sarah J. Maas, Leigh Bardugo, and Victoria Aveyard are the big names I see in queries.

I love technical questions like this. Please send more if you have them.

My advice would be to not say your (or anyone’s) style is like Shakespeare’s! Probably not like Tolstoy’s, Faulkner’s, or Jane Austen’s, either–even if it’s true!

Seriously, though, sometimes I think we give the gatekeepers (editors and agents) too much credit. If you say your style is like, say, mine, I doubt very much that an editor will launch a comparative analysis of the two of us.

It’s probably safe to name authors of books you admire in the genre you’re writing in. It’s likely to be true, too. If you read a lot of someone’s books and tend to reread them as well, his or her style is likely to infuse your own writing, even without your awareness.

I would blithely list authors you aspire to be like. I don’t think it’s terrible–or matters at all–if we’re clueless about whose writing is most similar to our own. There are aspects of the question that I’m not crazy about anyway. It seems fraught with danger. Suppose you say your work is like the writing of an author this agent or editor happens to despise. Or, if you say it’s like someone on the New York Times bestseller list, the editor or agent may suspect your motive for the comparison–implying that your manuscript will also land on bestseller lists. What if the editor has never heard of the author you name, and he feels stupid?

You might do some research and find out what writers the editor has worked with or the agent represents. Then, being a conscientious person, you can read the books of those writers and see if you feel an affinity. That’s not a bad way to go. I would be straightforward about it, though, and say what you did in your query letter.

Another option is to ignore the question. If I felt I could get away with it, that’s what I would do.

However, editors and agents aside, I think there’s value in inquiring into our style, though I tend to think of the term as voice. What follows is full of prompts, so there won’t be any at the end.

For one of my poetry school craft classes, my classmates and I had to read a poetry collection every week and write an analysis of the poet’s style and an imitation poem. I loved writing the imitation poems!

To do them, I examined each poet’s work on both a micro and macro level. On the micro level, I looked at things like line and sentence length, where line breaks occurred, sound devices (like alliteration and assonance), formal elements (like rhyme and meter), punctuation, capitalizing, metaphors, similes, etc.

On the macro level, I paid attention to tone, subject matter, how personal or not the poems were. Were they, in poetry lingo, confessional? Intellectual, idea poems? Were they easily understood or the opposite or somewhere in the middle? Did they tell a story?

Then I used what I’d discovered to write my imitation poem. Some of it was mechanical, but it was also creative to get inside someone else’s approach and make it, at least briefly, my own. By the end of the semester, I had new moves I could apply to my own poems, approaches that hadn’t been natural to me but became part of my repertoire.

We can do the same thing with a fiction writer we admire. We can look at what she does on both a micro and macro level. Try it! Open a beloved book to a random place. How does the page look? Are there lots of paragraphs or just one or two? Is there dialogue, or just narration? Or only dialogue? Open to a different page. Is the same still true? Do you see a pattern?

Examine a paragraph of narration, or a few if they’re short. Look at sentence length. Are they long, short, or varied? Do the beginnings repeat? Do words repeat? Do you see any italics? When you go to the next paragraph, does the beginning repeat from the one before? Is the vocabulary difficult? Do you notice exclamation points? Many questions? (If you’re reading my books, probably yes, many questions–I have to pull myself back.) Do you sense a rhythm in the prose? (There needn’t be any.) Do you see many or any parentheticals? Dashes? Colons? Semi-colons?

Zooming out, think of the book as a whole. Look at POV, tense, first-person or third. Do any of these switch? Does this writer use flashbacks? Are there big time jumps? How does the book start? With action, description, dialogue, setting? Do you see a lot of thoughts? Much emotion and emoting? Does telling or showing predominate? Humor?

Examine your own writing in the same way, asking yourself the same macro and micro questions. I’m pretty sure you’ll make discoveries about your voice/style.

Returning to the micro level, pick a paragraph–any paragraph that’s long enough to work with–in your own WIP and rewrite it as an imitation of the voice of the writer you’ve just studied. Have you learned something? Do you feel that you broke out of your mold and acquired new options?

When you’re about to start a new project, think of the macro level of the admired writer. Is there anything you can incorporate? When I wrote Ogre Enchanted, I decided to make Evie choose the guy I believe Jane Austen would have chosen, if she wrote fairy tale fantasy. She may have rotated in her grave, but I didn’t hear her bones rattle.

If you try my suggestions, please post how the process went. What did you learn?

Have fun, and save what you write!

The Derring in the Do

Thanks for all the title help with my forthcoming novels about the expulsion of the Jews from Spain! I’m putting together a list of possibilities for my editor, and I’ll let you know the result, but it’s not too late. If title inspiration strikes, please let me know.

On October 10, 2018, Superb♥Girl wrote, I have an idea for a story that has multiple themes: story-within-a-story; fish out of water; contemporary magic, etc. Something that is extremely important to the story is the sort of swashbuckling element I want to give it. But the thing is, I’ve never really attempted to write anything action/adventure-y before, and I’m worried about it feeling blank. I don’t want to write action/adventure for action/adventure’s sake, but I want it to be important to the emotional aspect and the overall plot. I also want to give it sort of an old-timey feel, like romanticizing it with kindheartedness and chivalry. So, long story short (writing pun), does anyone have any tips for action-type themes?

Angie wrote back, I think that one way you can add the swashbuckling/action element without it feeling like it’s there “just because” is to link it to some fundamental aspect of your MC’s personality or past. (Perhaps her(?) father passed down a fencing foil and your MC learns about a secret life of danger that her father led, and this affects her own path and choices.)

For example, in The Princess Bride, Inigo Montoya brought the swashbuckle to the story, and it was inextricably linked to his heart and character, as he needed it to avenge his father – his life goal. In The Three Musketeers, D’Artagnon was determined to prove himself, and that manifested in daredevil, swashbuckling antics.

In my own WIP, my MC feels that she doesn’t have any particular talent or outstanding cleverness, but she finds her place in protecting her friends because she is strong and quickly learns various defensive fighting skills.

If you can find the way that the swashbuckling, chivalry, and action is a part of your MC, I think you have every reason to include it!

And Poppie wrote, Superb♥Girl: I think you could have a lot of fun with that swashbuckling, action-adventure type of story! To help answer your question, let’s take a look at this quote from the film The Princess Bride: “Does it have sports in it?”

“Are you kidding? Fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles…”

That movie is very swashbuckling, and when in doubt, you can look at the quote and see what elements you could apply to your story. As an example, you would have to have some close-combat dueling in this type of story. Perhaps your hero gets into a fight with a criminal gang or his arch nemesis. He could use a sword, or martial arts, or magic (there’s the “fencing, fighting” element to it). It could also apply to your hero’s character. You mentioned a fish-out-of-water theme? Perhaps he comes from a city that promotes deeds of daring, and the city he currently lives in values quiet meditation above all else (there’s a little world-building in that as well).

Something else that I highly recommend is reading books and watching movies in that genre to give you an extra feel to the world.

Great answers!

I’m with Poppie that reading and watching the sort of books and movies in this genre will help. Specifically, you might try reading some contemporaneous Arthurian material. Here are two links to the story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which dates from the fifteenth century: http://www.yorku.ca/inpar/sggk_neilson.pdf and https://d.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/text/weston-sir-gawain-and-the-green-knight. There is a little hanky-panky going on, so maybe high school and up. And here’s a link to the discussion on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sir_Gawain_and_the_Green_Knight#Synopsis.

A great read for charm and swashbuckle is Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court–one of my all-time favorites. Another I love is The Once and Future King by T. H. White, a marvel of beautiful writing, among other things. Both, I think, are great for upper elementary and up–worthwhile no matter how old you are.

Twain’s novel was published in 1889 and White’s in 1958. If we’re going for old-timey, it helps to look at work that was created in an earlier period–another reason to turn to contemporaneous sources. Being aware and a little–unless we’re really studying a period knowledgeable will give us options and will help with our world-building. Here are some questions we can ask ourselves: How did people spend their days during the period? What were gender roles? Table manners? Diet? How did people regard children? How did they regard themselves? Did the idea of self differ between a lord, a merchant, a carpenter, a peasant? Did the idea of self differ between a lord and his lady, a peasant and his wife? I don’t think we’re going to find the self question resolved explicitly anywhere, but we can get hints. Then we decide what we want to keep and what we want to discard, using the complexity of what we learned. For example, we may decide to craft our MC in a contemporary mold for the sake of relatability, but we may make the lord of the castle pre-modern in his approach to everything.

Also, for movies, you might check out the oldies of the 1940s and 1950s that starred Errol Flynn, who could swash and buckle better than anybody.

One way to get the action/adventure going is to make the scale big. My two books that fall most into the adventure category are my Bamarre books, The Two Princesses of Bamarre and The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre. Addie, the MC of Two Princesses, is on a quest to find a cure for the Gray Death, which kills many every year. Perry, the MC of Lost Kingdom, is charged with freeing the Bamarre people from the oppressive Lakti.

The dangers in an adventure are real and physical. Addie has to face down monsters and for a while is held in a dragon’s lair by a dragon who intends to kill her. Perry rescues children from a battlefield and is hunted by the wily and determined Lord Tove.

This doesn’t mean there can’t also be emotional and psychological struggles, too. Addie has to fight her shyness and timidity. Her father is a basket case of emotional frigidity and indecision. Perry is unbending and almost universally disliked. Her mother is cold and judgmental even though she loves Perry.

But contrast this with my contemporary novel, The Wish, in which what’s at stake is popularity. Popularity is super important to MC Wilma, and I think it becomes important to the reader, too, but it’s all played out on a small stage.

We can use tone to make our action/adventure work. Though every rule can be broken, and I don’t want to get very prescriptive, in general, I think action/adventure stories don’t take themselves too seriously. Princess Bride, cited by both Angie and Poppie, is lighthearted. Hamlet has swordplay, too, but I wouldn’t call it an action play or an adventure. In fact, it might be called a stalled-action play, and the tone is very dark. Just saying, there’s neither swash nor buckle in making your girlfriend psychotic or killing an old man. I don’t mean that an adventure story can’t be serious, but there’s a difference between serious and depressing.

In Hamlet, the villains may be Claudius (the evil uncle) and Gertrude (AKA Mom to Hamlet), but they’re not actively opposing Hamlet, the MC. They’re more like the murderers in a mystery, trying to avoid discovery. However, generally in an action/adventure, there is an antagonist–human, fantasy creature, alien, natural force (like a fire)–that the MC has to deal with. So when we build our action/adventure, we can think about an antagonist.

I’m with Angie that we need to consider the character of our MC. She doesn’t have to be a derring-do sort at the outset, but she has to have that quality buried somewhere in her. When she’s pushed against the wall and all her old, pacific tactics fail, she needs to be able to pull out the audacity she didn’t even know she had. Or she can be a tough fighter from the start, but she can’t be unbeatable, or the tension will collapse.

As for old-timey feel, I’d use standard language if the story isn’t contemporary and stay away from words like nerd, geek, rad, and others that you know better than I do. But I wouldn’t attempt terms that aren’t in current use, like prithee or dost, and I’d stick to modern spelling–unless you have a Ph. D. in Elizabethan English and can get it exactly right. Having said that, it would be interesting to try thou and thee as the only deviation from standard English.

Let’s summarize strategies, keeping in mind that every rule can be broken if the result works:

∙ Look at books, movies, and TV shows that exemplify the qualities we’re looking for. Think about what we can take from them and use.

∙ Make the scale big and the stakes high.

∙ The most important risks should be physical and real (not emotional).

∙ The MC should have potential as a swashbuckler.

∙ The overall tone, the feeling that the reader is left with, shouldn’t be depressing.

∙ There needs to be a tangible, external antagonist.

∙ The language in a not-contemporary adventure story should be standard English rather than colloquial.

And here are three prompts:

∙ Just saying, the expression “chivalry is not dead” is modern, so chivalry does still live. Write a chivalric, action story set in a climbing gym.

∙ This may seem like sacrilege, but take The Diary of Anne Frank and change it from memoir to fantasy fiction by introducing one or more of these, or any other bit of magic: a dragon, a wizard, a fairy, a sword with magical properties, a flying horse, a cloak of invisibility. If you like, give it a happy ending. (Remember that the Diary is still copyright protected, and whatever you write can’t be published without the permission of the estate.)

∙ Pick a scene from Hamlet and write an action spoof of it. Make the ghost, if he’s in the scene, play a more active role. Think funny. Hamlet, in my opinion, is over the top, ripe for a takedown.

Have fun, and save what you write!

The Balancing Act

Congratulations to all you NaNoWriMo winners! I’d love to hear about what you accomplished. Please post.

And I need title help, so I’m coming once again to you guys, who have saved me in the past. April, please take note. This time it’s for my book about the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492. I don’t want to give much away, but I have to tell you a little. Cima is a girl in a family of wealthy Jews. Her grandfather, Joseph Corcia, is a philosopher, financier, and courtier to the monarchs and the nobility. He and she are very close, and he brings her with him when he travels, so she has a front-row seat on the growing antisemitism in Spain. Superstitions about Jews, the Inquisition, plague, attempts to convert her and her family all come into it–it was a terrible and exciting time. The reader meets King Ferdinand, Queen Isabella, and their daughter the infanta, Princess Isabella. My title was Long-Ago Cima, which my editor dislikes. Suggestions are more than welcome–please.

On September 17, 2018, Christie V Powell wrote, Here’s a question: how do you balance “showing” with being too subtle? I always hear things like “don’t name emotions” and “trust that your readers will figure it out.” But then I get comments on my stories saying that I implied too much. For instance, I have a girl climbing a cliff, and feedback (from experienced writers) was that I only implied that she might fall instead of stating the danger. In another scene, the main character says something like “her sister was gone across the sea.” A beta-reader commented that she doesn’t know how my MC feels about this. I assumed that this was already a sad thought so I didn’t need to say so.

Anyway, I’m working with their advice, but I was curious what you do to balance showing (especially emotion) with being too subtle/unclear?

Quite a discussion ensued.

Poppie: Showing physical manifestations of emotion, such as shaking hands, clenched teeth, or changes in breathing are great ways to show how a character is feeling, rather than saying “she was angry” or “she felt sad.” You can ‘show’ in times of danger or intense emotion, but I think it’s okay to mix in some ‘telling’ as well.

Let’s try this with the girl climbing the cliff:

“Her palms were slippery with sweat. Fear surged through her as she realized that if they got too sweaty she wouldn’t be able to keep her grip on the rocks. She would fall into the swirling rapids below…’no! Don’t think about that! Keep going… don’t look down… don’t panic…” she urged herself.

Kit Kat Kitty: With the “her sister was gone across the sea” example, I think it might be helpful to write in what she does when she thinks about it. If she looks down at her hands, readers might realize she’s sad. You could also do something along the lines of “Her sister was gone across the sea. I worried if she would ever come back. What if she didn’t?”

If a character is thinking, they’re likely to think about things they wouldn’t say, which can help with their inner thoughts and how they really feel. She likely won’t think “I’m sad,” but may think about sad things.

Raina: I saw an advice post on Pinterest that says “show emotion, tell feeling,,” with some more elaboration. (Here’s the post: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/457959855847579484/.) While I think that post is a little fuzzy about the difference between feelings and emotions, my interpretation is this: show the emotions/feelings that are significant to your character and unique to them, and tell the “basic” emotions/feelings that either aren’t extremely significant, or are so common that everybody can automatically relate without waxing poetic about it. For example, when it comes to climbing a cliff and potentially falling to their deaths, most people would probably be terrified. You can tell instead of show because given the situation, your reader can probably guess what she feels, and probably feels the same themselves. Correct me if I’m wrong, I’m guessing that her fear and/or the danger of falling doesn’t have lasting consequences on the plot or character development of the overarching story; it’s just there to provide tension for this specific scene. So while it’s always good to let readers know what’s going on with your character, this isn’t particularly “significant.”

A sister going across the sea, however, is probably an experience/emotion that’s unique to your character, and thus it might be worth it to show a little more of what she’s feeling instead of letting the reader figure it out. Because, though I can imagine a variety of emotions she might be feeling, I’ve never actually experienced anything like that, so the emotions I’m imagining might not be correct. Also, this sounds like pretty deep character development that will impact the whole story, so it’s worth it to spend some extra time showing her emotions in detail.

But in addition to finding the balance between subtlety and clarity, I think you also have to prioritize which one you value in any particular situation. For information that’s integral for the plot, I would definitely go with clarity. But if it’s not particularly pertinent information, and the reader won’t be too confused if they don’t get it, you can try to be more subtle and artistic in your descriptions. I disliked Ernest Hemingway’s short story “Hills Like White Elephants” because I couldn’t figure out what was going on (though my English teacher thought it was a brilliant piece of “iceberg” writing, so to each their own), whereas I absolutely adore Terry Pratchett’s many subtle but brilliant phrases in his books because they’re fairly low-stakes; if I figure it out, I’m delighted by his wit, but if I can’t, I’m not completely confused either, since they’re mainly just jokes or description, not important information.

Christie V Powell: Yeah, thank you. Here, though, my character isn’t terrified. She is (over)confident in her climbing abilities, and she’s doing it because she enjoys it. So I have to show that this is dangerous, but I have to stay inside her head and she’s not thinking about the danger. She’s feeling happy that she gets to do what she wants, and triumphant that she convinced her village to let her do it.

Sara: Maybe have her overconfidence show us that there’s real danger? She doesn’t have to realize it herself, but maybe when she’s thinking about how much fun this is, a lapse of focus for just a second sends a rock tumbling off the cliff. If there are those clues, we’ll understand that there is danger and that she’s oblivious to it.

I was in a children’s book writing workshop when I wrote Ella Enchanted, and the teacher read to the class the chapter in which Ella’s mother dies. The criticism I got was, Is she sad? And I thought, Duh. Her mother just died. Of course she’s sad! But then I had to show it, which I did, mostly through thoughts, drawing on memories of my thoughts and feelings when my mother had died a few years earlier.

My duh response wasn’t correct anyway. Years ago, I read a newspaper article in which the writer visited a nursing home and met an elderly woman whose husband had recently died. The writer expressed condolences, but the widow shook her head and said something like, “It’s wonderful!” Turns out the husband had been abusive and controlling. (If I remember right, her background had been traditional, and divorce hadn’t seemed to be an option.) The writer realized she had been making an unwarranted assumption–as we have to as well.

In the cliff climbing example, we can work the feeling in with showing, as Sara suggests. Say Christie V Powell’s character is named Mai. Someone else can say, “I’m terrified just thinking of climbing that. Aren’t you scared?” Mai can say, “Not me.” And can go on to thoughts that clue the reader in to her overconfidence. Maybe she’s never taken on a climb this challenging, but she knows she can do it; another, more experienced climber was injured in the attempt, but she still knows she can do it; snow fell overnight, but she’s climbed in snow before. We can use dialogue again. A dissenting voice from the village can say something like, “You’re a fool to climb that cliff, and they’re fools to let you.” This can trigger a torrent of more defensive thoughts in Mai.

We always have to balance being too subtle and hitting the reader over the head. My example above may fall into the second category, and the balance isn’t always easy to find. We should trust the reader’s intelligence on one hand, and on the other, everything we’re doing is lost if the reader doesn’t get it. Sometimes we find the sweet spot only in revision, when we can regard our pages from the distance a break provides.

Of course I don’t know what happens to the Mai character in Christie V Powell’s story, and I don’t know if the beta readers saw only the part before the climb or the climb itself as well. Sometimes with our subtle showing we ring a little bell, which the reader may not notice immediately. If Mai gets into trouble during the climb, then the reader will remember the subtle clues and appreciate them. If the beta readers haven’t read far enough, they won’t recognize our clever planting.

I’m with Poppie that some telling is fine. Mai can think back to her first climb and how scared she was (if she was) and contrast that with the present. She can notice how steady her hands are, how regular her heartbeat–and tell the reader that she feels confident of success.

As always, the elements we have to work with for showing are thoughts, physical manifestations of emotions, dialogue, and, in this case, setting.

One more thing: Not every criticism is accurate. Beta readers can be wrong–although if we hear the same concern from more than one person, we have to take it seriously.

Here are three prompts:

∙ A hurricane is predicted for Any Town on the coast of Any Sea. Dick and Jane and their little dog Spot live with their granddaughter Dorothy in a split-level ranch house a block from the beach. Any Town residents are advised to evacuate. Each of the human characters as well as Spot reacts differently to the threat. From the POV of an omniscient narrator, show how the four respond. With a minimum of telling, reveal their inner lives when faced with this threat. Write a scene or the whole story of the lead-up to the hurricane and the storm itself for this family.

∙ Some people (usually not writers, just saying) and characters are oblivious to their inner lives. Six of the seven dwarfs are delighted to have Snow White living with them. Jobin, one of the dwarfs, feels serious internal pressure to be happy, too. He doesn’t know either how great his need to conform is or how much he resents Snow White’s invasion of their happy home. It all comes to a head on the third day of her stay. Write what happens, showing both what he actually feels and what he thinks he feels–and how he acts.

∙ You may have to look at your Shakespeare for this. Your main character, Roger, is playing Romeo, and your other main character, June, is playing Juliet. Roger, in real life, is falling for June, while she can barely tolerate him. Write their rehearsal of a love scene.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Wimp or Not a Wimp

To you brave NaNoWriMo-ers, I’m thinking of you and wishing you well!

On September 8, 2018, Writeforfun wrote, I have a character with a sort of condition/curse that causes him a lot of pain and discomfort at certain times. I have no trouble describing it because I got the flu recently (the kind where you ache so badly and you’re so weak that you can’t walk across the room), so I can envision exactly how he feels.

My problem is, I’m worried that I’m making him seem whiny or wimpy when I write about it. He never actually complains about his pain, but I keep mentioning how he’s feeling, or mentioning actions such as rubbing a sore joint, in order to get the point across; however, as I read over it, I feel like he just sounds kind of pathetic. He’s supposed to be a silently suffering but ultimately strong kid, but I’m not sure I’m achieving that.

Any tips?

Writeforfun went on the provide a sample:: The king cast an apologetic look at Oliver. “I am sorry to take you to the dungeons,” he said. “But I assure you, you are by no means a prisoner.”

Oliver could not find the courage or strength to reply, so he nodded vaguely as he rubbed his aching arms.

“It’s just down here,” said the king gently. Sir Rodrick pulled an extra torch off the wall and followed after Oliver, who tentatively descended after the king. It was a spiral staircase, and though there were no windows, there were so many torches that it was brighter in the staircase than it had been in the hallway. Oliver wasn’t sure if he had the strength to make it all the way down; his legs were throbbing, even his skin stinging as his transformation drew painfully nearer.

“I’ve put a few extra torches up for you,” said the king as he descended the stairs ahead of them. “I see no reason for it to be dark and dreary down here during your stay.”

Oliver could not find the strength to thank him, so he nodded weakly.

“Only a bit further,” said the king, who had noticed his fatigue. He shot a glance past Oliver to Sir Rodrick, but Oliver did not know nor care what he was communicating.

The spiral staircase made him dizzy and seemed to stretch on forever, but at last they reached the floor. It was cobblestone like the paths outside the castle, only this floor had no shoots of moss and grass peeking through the cracks; only dry, hard earth or, in some places, mud.

I wrote, He doesn’t seem either whiny or wimpy to me. He seems heroic. But I’m adding your question to my list, because there are aspects I think we can explore.

And Poppie wrote: You can use a cue to let the reader know what he’s going through without having to repeat yourself. For example, earlier in the story the reader finds out that his right elbow aches so badly that he can’t bend his arms, so he grabs it as a reaction to his pain. Later, when ever he grabs his elbow, the readers know what’s going on without going through the details again.

Are there times when his symptoms are better than others? You could sprinkle those in throughout the story. It would give him a break and give more weight to when he’s suffering.

Taking off my writer’s hat for a moment and just saying, I got my (senior) flu shot last month. Even before I grew so old, I presented myself for vaccination every year, because, before the vaccine was invented, I came down with the flu annually, with all the attendant misery. We can’t write when we can’t sit up!

Onward!

Before I get into advice-giving, I want to point out the skillful and economical way Writeforfun sneaks in a hint that Oliver’s symptoms presage a transformation.

I am firmly in the camp of writers who believe in finishing before revising, excepting only when we (I) are so lost that going on is impossible. When I’m worrying about an element in my story, I write a note about the problem at the top of the first page  to remind myself to keep it in mind as I revise.

Often, when I finish, I realize that my worries were just that–and six other things need fixing, but not those.

Let’s assume, however, that Writeforfun has reached the revision stage. As I said above, Oliver doesn’t come across as wimpy or whiny, but I think it is possible that the reader is being reminded more than she needs to be about his physical troubles. If his well-being matters to the reader, she won’t forget that he’s in pain. This applies whether he’s our main character or our villain. If he’s important to the story, the reader will remember. A few details will go along way. In fact, the reader may intuit more suffering for him if we don’t reveal everything–

–unless for some plot reason, the reader must understand every intricacy of Oliver’s misery. If that’s the case, Oliver doesn’t have to bear the whole burden.

I have the idea that this is from a third-person omniscient POV, because the narrator reveals, not only Oliver’s pain, but also the king noticing the pain. If that’s the case, the king can be shown to think something about Oliver’s condition: how pinched his face looks, how he’s dragging one of his feet–whatever. Sir Rodrick can have an emotional response to Oliver’s apparent illness, sympathy or anger or something else.

If the POV isn’t omniscient, we can still use the other characters. Dialogue is one way. The king can remark on Oliver’s limp or his pinched face. Sir Rodrick can question whether he must be imprisoned, since he seems too weak to be a flight risk.

We can use Oliver’s actions, rather than his inner state. He can stumble or grab Rodrick’s arm, which is involuntary and not wimpy or whiny.

We can use his own words to reveal his courage, his non-wimpiness. The king can ask him if he’s all right, and he can say, “Never better,” even though the reader knows he’s in pain.

And we can use his thoughts to achieve the same end. Because he is brave, he can think, This isn’t so bad. Anyone can manage this. He can draw on some wisdom from his world, possibly a saying to help him get through–but resorting to that particular saying will show the reader how bad it is.

So we have these other strategies to reveal the shape a character is in, other than his own thoughts and feelings: the perspective of other characters as revealed through their thoughts and feelings; dialogue between other characters and even with him; and his actions, like a stumble.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Your MC is trying to keep his dog, Fraggle, from being discovered. The stakes are high. Fraggle is not only his adored pet, but also his service dog. If she’s taken from him, he will fall apart. Write the scene so that the reader knows what’s going on.

∙ Your MC is climbing a mountain to reach the citadel of her enemy, and she’s in great emotional pain. You make up the reason. Write the scene.

∙ Your MC and your villain are discussing a truce, but neither really wants one. Both want to discover the other’s true next move. Write the scene from the POV of an omniscient narrator. If you’re inclined to try it, rewrite the scene in first person of one of the two.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Stalled in Love

A reminder for those of you in my neck of the woods: I will be at the Ridgefield Public Library in Ridgefield, Connecticut, on Saturday, November 10th at 2:00 pm–even though elsewhere on the website it said 1:00 pm until yesterday. Oops! I would love to meet any of you who can come!

To all those on the first leg to NaNoWriMo, hang onto your hats, and all the best!

On August 31, 2018, newtothis set off quite a discussion with her question: So, guys, what are your thoughts on love triangles?

Christie V Powell: Well, you asked for it

Personally, I’m not a fan–at least, not the most cliche version with one “ordinary” girl who somehow catches the attention of two equally hot guys, one brooding and mysterious and one a good friend.

Besides the cliche, I’m not a fan of having the girl be so indecisive: I feel like the point of a romance, subplot or otherwise, is watching the two characters grow closer and learn to work together. You can’t really do that if you’re vacillating between love interests.

Song4myKing: I don’t usually like them either, but thinking about it, it all depends on how it’s done, and why. I read one book with a love triangle that would sound very cliche if summed up, but I liked it anyway. There was way more to the story than only the romance stuff, but the MC’s reactions and thoughts about the two young men were part of the whole story theme. It all worked together and was decently believable (rather than “oh, she’s mad at him now, because the romance was going too obviously in his direction”).

I generally don’t like the whole indecisiveness. It often feels contrived. And we as readers often have a good idea of which way it will go, and it’s annoying when the MC doesn’t “get it” for so long.

I also get annoyed at the too-many-suitors aspect. Maybe it’s just because I totally can’t sympathize. But I think it also rings of the unrealistic to me: I do have friends who have too many would-be suitors, but so far none of them have told me about having two equally nice guys chasing them at the same time.

Another reason I don’t usually like love triangles is because I don’t really care for romance in general. Which means you can take my comments about it with a grain of salt! What do I know about it anyway if I don’t read it?

Basically, what I think about love triangles is this (it kinda applies to romance in general): Make the story about more than just it. And avoid the opposite ditch at the same time – make it part of the story. Don’t just tag it on as a crowd pleaser. Don’t stretch the whole indecision thing just to make the fans team up for their favorite. Think carefully about whether it adds or detracts from the rest of the story.

Raina: I think it all depends on the reasoning behind them; if it’s a forced love triangle between three people just for the sake of drama/showing how desirable the MC is, then in my experience, it usually feels unrealistic and doesn’t work. On the other hand, if it develops naturally from character relationships (as any romance should), then I think it could work. People are complicated, especially teenagers, and it’s quite realistic for feelings to change rapidly, especially in the beginning stages of a relationship (i.e. when you’re not actually dating, and therefore aren’t formally committed). I think as long as you’re not putting in a love triangle for the sake of a love triangle, but simply have two potential love interests that represent different but plausible (and hopefully happy) futures for your MC, that should be fine.

Bethany: All I’m gonna say is, when have you ever seen a girl who is in love with two different guys in real life?

At my signing last week, a man asked me why I thought “Beauty and the Beast,” in all its variations has survived so long. And I said that I think it’s because, however weak this may seem to some, everyone–man, woman, and child–wants to be loved. In the traditional retelling (not, by any means, in my Ogre Enchanted!), the Beast loves Beauty so-so-so desperately that he will die without her. This is appealing if not emotionally healthy, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with wanting to be loved. Quite the opposite. Empathy comes partly from wanting to be loved, in my opinion, and a lot of good behavior does, too–loved romantically or in any other way.

Something similar happens in a love triangle. The two suitors at the base of the triangle love-love-love the character at the apex, whatever the gender of those involved. The reader imagines herself (or himself) as the wanted one, standing on tiptoe on that heady peak–while the point tears into her foot, and blood streams down the sides.

I haven’t written a love triangle and probably never will, although Ogre Enchanted has elements in common with one.

Strong emotions are the hallmarks of a love triangle, if it’s taken seriously, if it isn’t a cliche: jealousy, love (real or imagined), hate, anxiety, fear. And sadness is common if not inevitable. The love object, if she lets one of the suitors go, will experience deep loss, because she’s giving up this person’s love, something she’s proven, by getting into a love triangle, she needs very much.

Maybe she wants to hang onto both, but she has to be two different people, one for each. How can she be true to herself? Where is her self-respect? And there are self-respect issues for the suitors. Why are they willing to endure this? The one who drops off will grieve. All three can entirely split apart, too. There’s no law that two have to be left together.

One of the sad aspects of a love triangle is stasis. While the triangle continues, none of them can continue with their lives. Oddly, it makes me think of Hamlet, who is stuck in the indecision that kills him in the end. The main characters in a romantic triangle are like charged atoms, stuck in orbit around each other.

As all of you have said, it depends on how it’s done. Everything in writing depends on that. And how it’s done in a romantic triangle hinges on the characters involved, because this is a character-driven story, which would be the strategy we can use to approach it.

What happened to land these three people in this dilemma? What does each one want? How do their goals intersect and diverge? What ideas do they cherish of themselves? Why is it so hard for them to break free? The stasis is the villain. What other characters and circumstances are keeping it going? How is it defeated? Who does the defeating? Is this a tragedy, like Hamlet, or a romcom?

What is likely to make the dilemma worth it for the reader is the appeal of the MC and the other two. She has to be flawed but lovable. The reader needs to understand why the other two love her and why she loves them.

Here are four prompts:

∙ Your MC is given permission by her parents to get a dog. She goes to her local animal shelter, where two puppies in particular shower her with licks. They’re both adorable, and she doesn’t know what will happen to the one she doesn’t take. She has to pick one, because her parents have been very clear about this. Write the love triangle.

∙ Cinderella and Prince Charming are engaged and planning their wedding, when he’s called away on a diplomatic mission that takes him through the forest where Snow White has just been poisoned by the evil queen. He recognizes her, because their kingdoms are neighbors, and they grew up seeing and liking each other when they met on state occasions. Naturally, he kisses her. She wakes up, sees his face, remembers her friendly feelings for him, and is primed for love. His heart is touched, and the love triangle begins. Write what happens.

∙ Your MC has had one boyfriend since eighth grade, and now it’s twelfth, and she, a talented actor, is cast as the lead in the school production of Carousel and finds herself liking the boy who plays Judd–and he likes her. The boyfriend is the stage manager. Write the triangle and how it works out.

∙ Two of the dwarves fall for Snow White, who enjoys being adored. She leads them on and leads them on. Write what happens. You can take the fairy tale in a new direction if you like.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Over-the-Top Suffering

First off: Ogre Enchanted is out, loosed upon the world!

And I forgot to mention that I’ll be in Millbrook, New York, at the Merritt Bookstore on Saturday, October 27th, at 11:00 am. Hope to see any of you who live in the area and can make it!

Here’s a craft thing that I’ve been thinking about as I’ve begun revising Long-Ago Cima (which may not be the title in the end), my historical novel about the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492. I like concise writing, so I put my manuscript on a diet when I revise. Unneeded words must go!

And I find them in locutions like, She could see, He could hear, They could feel. Or can see, hear, feel, depending on tense. I write phrases like these without noticing, and I see them in the writing of others. But usually, if she, he, and they could, they did, which is what’s meant, and the word could is unnecessary, as in She saw, or He hears, and so on. Occasionally we need the word could, as in: Meredith started her training as a chocolate-pudding taster. Yes! She could pick out the deeper notes of the cocoa in the sample from the high mountains of the planet Ponso, and could taste the extra sweetness in the sample from the jungles of Ewel.

This is just one more detail to keep our eyes on!

Just saying, if any company is looking for a chocolate-pudding taster, I’m available.

On to the post.

On August 10, 2018, Melissa Mead wrote, Related to the “How can I make my characters suffer?” question, another online group I’m in is talking about authors who make their characters suffer TOO much, so it ceases to have meaning for the reader. Made me think about the time I showed a scene to a pro-author friend. She read it, looked grim, and just said “I hope the villain gets what’s coming to him.”

How do you know when you’ve gone too far in that direction?

A brief back-and-forth followed:

Sara: Maybe when everything that happens to them for a while is suffering? This may be hard to tell, but that’s the only guideline I can think of. Have you read villains who, despite their wickedness, you almost have to root for because they’re so clever and persistent, like at either defeating the MC or just staying alive in repeated dangerous situations? If you make a villain come out on top a lot but still have those justified bad things happening, the suffering should feel gradual. Or the suffering can be minor things, added up over time to be major. This applies to any character, too, obviously.

Melissa Mead: I do know that there’s at least one scene in my WIP that I wouldn’t be able to watch if it were on TV, but then, I scare easily. (I wasn’t trying to make it that way, but, well, serpent-demons do upsetting things.) I don’t know if it would be as upsetting for the typical reader.

At yesterday’s launch of Ogre, I was sharing my worries about the expulsion book with my poor audience–that it will contain too much suffering for middle-grade readers. (My deepest fear, really, is that my editor will say she doesn’t know any age it’s right for–too young for adult and young adult, too old for middle grade–except for kids between eleven-and-six-months and eleven-and-seven-months.) Interestingly, a middle-school librarian who was there said that the kids at her school can’t get enough of Holocaust books, so too much suffering may not be too much of a problem!

We may not need to worry about children, or most readers. They’re tough! It is possible that Melissa Mead’s worry (and mine) is merely one more anxiety that we writers find to torment ourselves with.

On the other hand, I have a confession: I rarely read novels these days because of the suffering, which I buy into too deeply. Even though I’m a very happy person, the suffering I create on the page comes from somewhere in me, and the suffering other writers put on their pages comes from depths within them. I don’t need to suspend my disbelief, I need to engage it!

I’m not sure if the villain is at the heart of Melissa Mead’s question. Seems to me it’s the nature of the MC and the intersection of main character and villain.

To take a cartoony example: suppose our villain likes to flay his victims. Being skinned alive is major suffering, I’d say. But suppose our main character is Lizzie, lizard-girl, and she grows new skin instantly. In fact, she enjoys a good flaying, which feels to her like having her back scratched.

The suffering vanishes. Alas, so does the tension. Unless the reader knows that Lizzie’s five-year-old brother hasn’t come into his super power yet. If the villain discovers Markie’s vulnerability, the boy is in for a lot of pain and possibly death. Lizzie has to protect him!

Now the reader suffers, but the suffering is more anticipation than the agony of the rupture of major blood vessels.

Obviously, suffering doesn’t have to be inflicted by a villain. As we’ve seen in recent weather events, nature can be its instrument. So can well-meaning characters, and that may be the worst suffering of all. Lizzie is babysitting Markie at an amusement park, and he is desperately eager to go on the Ferris Wheel. She’s a good sister; there’s no height requirement for the ride; the wind isn’t that strong; she’ll be right next to him; what could go wrong?

Everything. The wind picks up to gale force; the ride malfunctions; Markie, who loves it all, decides to unhook his harness before his sister can stop him–and he dies or is so injured he’ll never be the same.

I would put down the book.

But I’d miss what happens over time. Lizzie becomes a crusader against unsafe amusement park rides, and annual injuries and fatalities plummet. After a lot of self-examination she recognizes that she had been reckless with Markie’s safety, and she forgives herself. There will always be a scar, but she’s stronger for it, more thoughtful, more cautious.

If the writer wants to cheer us up entirely, she can make Markie survive and develop skills that compensate for his injury. His future is different than it would have been, but it’s bright.

Let’s return to our flaying villain and Lizzie. Suppose she has no super power, and she is seriously flayed. She’s getting medical attention, but she’s in terrible pain, and she’s blaming herself for failing to defeat the villain, for not wearing her armor, for being weak. The reader loves her, so he’s suffering, too.

What can we do to make the suffering bearable for her and the reader?

I’ve used this strategy many times: We give her qualities that don’t remove her suffering but make it somewhat bearable. She can know meditation techniques that allow her to get a little distance on the pain; her world view finds meaning in suffering as the route to a higher life; she’s confident that her inner strength will get her through this.

Other characters. Lizzie’s best friend’s face is the first thing she sees when she wakes up from her blackout, even if the villain is still on the loose. In The Two Princesses of Bamarre, without giving anything away, I use a disembodied voice to help Addie through her worst moments. If the suffering is tolerable to our MC, it will be bearable to our readers.

Reader knowledge can help, too. Lizzie’s worst fear when she blacks out is that the flaying villain got Markie, but the reader knows he’s okay.

Just saying, some of us–many of us–are too timid about bringing suffering down on our characters. Too little is at least as bad as too much. I’m not convinced that Melissa Mead’s reader’s grim response to her villain isn’t a good thing. We want our readers to feel strongly! Kudos to us when we achieve that.

And there is tragedy and readers who gobble it up. For them there is no such thing as too sad. The more hankies the better. We can give them what they want and feel good about it. We’re not creating misery in the real world. When we want to, we can go for it.

Here are four prompts:

∙ Here’s a link to the Wikipedia entry of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in ancient times: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eruption_of_Mount_Vesuvius_in_79#Pliny_the_Younger. Write this history as a tragedy, which it was. Don’t leave a dry eye in the house.

∙ Write the same events but use the strategies in this post and others you may know to leaven the suffering. End with hope.

∙ If you are brave, write possibly the worst tragedy imaginable, a tragic outcome when it didn’t have to be that way, when everything that goes wrong is preventable and happens because of mistakes and the fatal character flaw in your main character, who is otherwise lovable with many fine qualities. Lizzie persuades two friends to join her on an expedition into the mountains of their kingdom, where the terrain is super dangerous and the caves are inhabited by sentient bears who hate humans. Bring it to a terrible conclusion.

∙ Change one thing in the prompt above. Create lots of suffering, but make it come out okay.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Quick Connection

Before the post: Ogre Enchanted will be out on October 16th–in six days! Hooray! I’m not touring this time, but I will be doing several events close to home. If you’re in the southern New York-Connecticut area, check them out here on the website by clicking on In Person. I would love to see you!

And this: Since the Myers-Briggs Personality Test has come up here more than once as a character-development tool, I was interested to hear a report on it on the radio. Here’s a link to the episode for anyone who’s interested: https://www.npr.org/2018/09/22/650019038/how-the-myers-briggs-personality-test-began-in-a-mothers-living-room-lab.

On August 9, 2018, Sunny Days wrote, I have a question about my novel. Most of the plot involves my MC trying to save a city from destruction. Because it’s so important to the plot, I’m trying to find a way to make the readers feel connected to the city, but I don’t have a lot of time to introduce it. Also, I can’t find a realistic way for the MC to care about the city. She’s lived there for two years, but she has no family members living there and her closest friend comes on the quest with her. However, the city symbolizes a safe haven for her. Does anyone have advice for making the readers feel for something they have only just been introduced to?

A back-and-forth followed:

Melissa Mead: Where did she live before she came to this city? You could contrast the old place with the new one: warm terracotta roofs versus gray slate, cheerful chatter versus shrieking trains, the smell of bakeries and stables versus a tannery…

Sunny Days: The city is themed around a medieval castle, but it’s placed in the Rocky Mountains. My MC grew up in a small town in Colorado.

Carley Ann: Maybe readers would fall in love with your city quickly if the people who live in that city were good people. You know, flawed, imperfect, but the kind of clever humans a reader would want to be with. The city could be like a haven of sorts?

Song4myKing: Being and symbolizing a safe haven is a pretty strong reason for the MC to care, and it could be for the reader as well. Details are important, I think, especially the pleasant, homey details that give a sense of connection. And don’t forget the people. Even if she has no family or super close friends in the city, there are sure to be other people she’s interacted with in the last two years. Even if she hasn’t thought about liking them until now, she’s sure to hate the very thought of the city being destroyed with them inside. If the reader can get just a few glimpses of ordinary life in the city, and meet a few of the people – ordinary, working people, that you’d see every day, but with little quirks that drive home that fact that these are individuals – they’ll care.

I know I’ve seen it done well, but I can’t think of a good example right now. I think it also helps to establish this setting before bringing in the threat. You probably can threaten it first if it works best that way, but when I’m introduced to something in a story that I know is possibly gonna end, I’m tempted to hold it at arm’s length and not get attached to it.

Samantha: Flash backs! Try writing a few scenes from the MC’s point of view that are laced with memories of her time in the city. They don’t have to express her love for the city, but they could instead express her viewing other people’s love for the city. For example she could have a memory of seeing a mother outside her house with her daughter and the daughter is running around skipping pebbles across the street and the mother is doing wash or some such everyday task. She could reflect on how much this city means to other people and how their lives are completely tied up in the city, even if it has no sentimental value to herself. Make the reader feel for the people of the city and fear their home being in danger. The people that live inside a house make it a home – the same thing goes for this city. When the reader realizes that there are actual characters inside the city they feel for them.

These are terrific!

A friend who has lived in New York City all his life is very uneasy in the subway, while the subway is one of the places I feel most at home, although some unpleasant things have happened to me down there, one of them completely gross. But the subway, despite delays, is usually the fastest way to get from x to y. When I was a kid it gave me independence. At ten, I was allowed to ride by myself. It took me and my friends to museums, to ice skating in the winter, to the beach in the summer. Because of the subway, the world was my oyster!

And I have a couple of powerfully good memories. One is of falling asleep on my ride home from work. I lived at the last stop, and when I woke up, the car I was in was empty, and my purse was no longer on my lap. There it lay, on the floor, five feet away, with everything inside: wallet, money, ID. If I had a credit card, it was there, too. Cell phones and the Internet were far in the future. Obviously, this was a long time ago. My husband and I were just starting out. Losing twenty dollars would have hurt! And the knowledge that I deserved the loss would have hurt, too.

Even earlier, when I was thirteen, I took an art class a subway ride away from home, and I always returned during rush hour, when the subway cars were so crowded you couldn’t raise your hand from your side to scratch your nose. In such a car, I managed to drop my carton of forty-eight crayons, the maximum back then–

–and strangers contorted themselves to get down to the floor to help me pick them up. In my memory, which may be flawed, not a crayon was missing at the end.

I treasure these memories of “the kindness of strangers,” and they overshadow the bad ones, which are inconsequential in comparison. They connect me, not to all of New York City, but to the subway.

We can use these sort of events to create our MC’s love for a place, and we can do it in a hurry. The two main criteria are:

∙ my MC’s character–what she needs and what’s important to her;

∙ that the event has an emotional impact.

We can ask ourselves what our character needs most, what she’s desperate for. We can make a list! Here are a few ideas that might go on it:

∙ friendship;

∙ someone who listens;

∙ money;

∙ a doctor;

∙ a snake;

∙ a can of tuna fish;

∙ to catch a break.

A reminder: we let our minds go free when we make lists. Nothing is stupid.

Now we can list occurrences that might, at least temporarily, meet her need. Suppose she needs to catch a break, here are three things that might go on the list:

∙ She runs for a bus, which she really has no hope of getting to in time, and the driver waits for her.

∙ She finds a twenty dollar bill in a park, and no one is around to claim it.

∙ Without her knowledge, her backpack has come more than half unzipped. Her prized letter of recommendation is about to fall out when a stranger warns her. Minus the letter of recommendation, this has happened to me more than once in one of my favorite cities, New York City.

I recommend continuing until we have, say, ten bullet points to choose among. In my opinion, we can expand two of them in our story. More, and the reader will feel we’re stacking the deck.

Last, we have to connect the events with the place, to make it feel good for her, and this, too, goes to her character and the way she frames the world. If, for instance, she understands her life as being controlled by fate, she may think that the bus driver who waited for her would have waited in any city, because he was destined to, or that he waited because today is her lucky day. In that case, we have to direct her attention to the fact that this good thing and one other did happen here, and her fate may be bound up with the city. We can make a list about how to do that, using her fatalistic world view. Just saying, sky writing would be on my list.

To summarize, to create an attachment to a place quickly and economically, we should know–or make up–the needs of our MC and then create events that satisfy those needs. Naturally, the satisfaction takes place in a small way–we don’t want to solve our story’s main conflict. After that, we have to make sure the events are linked in her mind with the location, in this case a city, where they occurred.

The key is emotion. Events that trigger feeling rise to a level of importance beyond the ordinary. Of course, this works for ill as well as good. We’re not likely to think fondly of the place where something bad happened. And it works for people as well as places. We’re inclined to like the bus driver who waited for us without knowing anything else about him. First impressions are powerful and fast.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Think of a memory, or more than one, in your life that ties you in a good way to a place: a house, a park, a street, a store, a whole city. Imagine a character for whom the occurrence would be meaningful, but in a different way and for a different reason from the way if affected you. Write the scene when it happens.

∙ Go back, using the above, and write a scene from your character’s earlier life that demonstrates why the occurrence means so much to her.

∙ Pick a need from my list or yours of needs and write a scene in which that need is gratified. Include the way your MC understands what happened. Extra credit if a medieval castle is involved!

Have fun, and save what you write!

Mutually Assured Destruction Avoidance

Another pre-post thingy, though this isn’t about craft. Instead, it’s a charming discovery I made in my research for my historical novel on the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. Some of the fleeing Jews boarded boats for Italy, and when they got there, the city-states in the north wouldn’t let them in. The first place to reject them was Genoa, so I looked up the history of Genoa on Wikipedia, because I wanted to glimpse the harbor and the old buildings and get an idea of what was going on. During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, Genoa was a mercantile powerhouse, and during this period–you can look it up yourself!–the citizens invented a fabric called blue jean, which they marketed far and wide. Who knew? So then I looked jeans up in the Oxford English Dictionary and discovered that the word, which means “a twilled cotton fabric,” comes from the name of the city-state–jean derives phonetically from Genoa. The Chinese may have invented spaghetti, but the Italians can claim denim!

What application might this have for fiction, specifically fantasy? Well, if we have an object, magical or otherwise, that’s significant for our plot, we can invent a history for it that may contribute to its mystery or its allure.

Now, a reminder that I’ll be at the Chappaqua Book Festival in, unsurprisingly, Chappaqua, New York, all day this Saturday, along with other kids’ book writers you may admire. Pre-release copies of Ogre Enchanted will be on sale there and only there. I would love to see you. Here’s a link to the event: http://www.ccbfestival.org/.

And the real release date is October 16th, when I’ll be at Byrd’s Books in Bethel, Connecticut, for a launch talk and signing. Very exciting! Here’s a link: http://byrdsbooks.com/2018/08/15/gail-carson-levine-launches-ogre-enchanted-at-byrds-books/.

On July 26, 2018, Christie V Powell wrote, I am trying to iron out the ending of my WIP, and I keep thinking of Gail’s line from “Writing Magic”– I just want to drop a bomb on all of them! If it turns out half as perfect as Ella’s ending, I’ll be happy.

I guess I’ll make a question out of that: How do you make a finale that wraps up all your different plot lines and minor characters without being too jumbled?

Melissa Mead welcomed the question: I’ll second that! Endings are my weak point, especially in novels.

Maggie R. responded with, Oh boy. I haven’t gotten to that point yet myself, so I can’t offer much advice. But I’ll try to put down some observations. In Ella Enchanted, Ella has a bunch of different problems, such as a stepfamily who hates her, and a person whom she loves but she can’t marry. All of this is solved by getting to the root of the problems: her curse. So, if you can find the root of all of the different plot lines and resolve that, it should mostly resolve the plot lines. Of course, the extras that don’t fit in with the root problem, those can be fixed real quick before the book is over, like the issue of Ella’s father is resolved in the epilogue. (Not saying that you have to have a epilogue. Just using one as an example.)

Thank you, Christie V Powell, for the compliment! And I’m with you and my earlier self that a bomb is tempting. Boom! Everything is taken care of.

Readers may be a tad annoyed.

I’m with Maggie R. in terms of the main story conflict, that resolving the underlying problem will provide the ending. And an epilogue is handy for mopping up any pesky loose ends.

An epilogue is mostly telling, so we can run through everything almost like bullet points. If the writing is smooth, the reader won’t mind that the information is being delivered economically. At that point, he’ll be satisfied; the story has delivered everything he hoped for; all that’s left is mild curiosity about the little stuff. He wants to know, but he’s fine with getting unembellished answers.

But I don’t think every plot thread has to be sewn up. Leaving some of them dangling feels like life. Whatever happened to my high school friend who was so popular and so dramatic about all her romances? I can entertain myself by wondering if she’s on her sixth spouse or never married or stuck with one for, by now, forty years or more. I loved her confidences, because my life wasn’t half as interesting as hers, about which she was uncurious. Has she found another attentive listener?

Also, if we leave a few threads hanging, we can return to them in future books. I’ve more than once regretted tying up all my loose ends so neatly. Although readers may cheer when Mandy teaches Lucinda a lesson and the crazy fairy starts curtailing her terrible gifts, I’ve been prevented from using her to create havoc in books that take place in the future of Kyrria–although recently I’ve thought of a possible way to get her back into action. We’ll see.

If we can think of a way to entwine our minor plot threads with the major one, then several can be resolved together. For example, in The Two Princesses of Bamarre one of the threads is that Bamarre is ruled by a fearful, indecisive king. When Addie comes into her own, the reader can stop worrying about the fate of the kingdom, assured that she’ll take charge. Just saying, lists can help us find the connections.

So we have three strategies:
∙ an epilogue;
∙ leaving some subplots unresolved;
∙ and uniting minor elements with major ones.

Let’s consider my darling Pride and Prejudice and its final chapter, which functions as an epilogue, and what it leaves unresolved. In the chapter we discover, for instance, that Lady Catherine de Bourgh forgives Darcy and Elizabeth, but not if her daughter ever marries. We don’t find out what happens to Darcy’s sister or Bingley’s unmarried sister. We learn that Elizabeth’s two other younger sisters become more sensible, but not about their marriages or their wealth or poverty, which are very important in Austen’s world. When I looked at the last chapter, I found myself wondering if Lydia and Wickham have children. Austen leaves a lot open for sequels, and, since she didn’t write sequels, for future authors to develop. Hmm…

Going back to Maggie R.’s advice, sometimes it’s hard to figure out what the root problem is. As I may have mentioned before, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about “Rumpelstiltskin,” which is complicated for a short fairy tale. The miller’s daughter is the MC, and the thrust (not the root problem) of the tale is her survival and the safety of her child, but there are important side issues. There’s her father. Why does he claim a magical power for his daughter that she doesn’t have? And what’s up with the king? It seems to be all one to him whether he kills the damsel or marries her, since, once he marries her he stops making her change straw to gold. Why does Rumpelstiltskin want the baby? And, if he wants it, why does he give the miller’s daughter a chance to keep it? The fairy tale ignores all these questions, but if we’re taking the story seriously, we can’t.

Here’s a list of four quests as possible root problems or goals for the miller’s daughter, but I’m sure there are more:

∙ to stop being exploited by her father, the king, and Rumpelstiltskin, and to become independent and powerful enough to solve her own problems;

∙ to wrest herself and the kingdom from the grip of greed, since everyone seems out for what they can get;

∙ to care for other people, like her own baby–and possibly her father, the king, and Rumpelstiltskin;

∙ to end child abduction by gnomes.

When we pick one of the ones on my list or any others you may come up with, we start to envision an ending–or that’s how I do it. Let’s take the greed one, and let’s imagine that the kingdom is poor. Famines occur regularly. The greed is the result of deprivation. Rumpelstiltskin wants the baby so he can raise her to work in the gold mines, along with other human slaves, because food is so expensive. The king wants the miller’s daughter to make gold so he can buy luxuries from a neighboring kingdom, which isn’t afflicted by famine. The miller wants to get rid of his daughter one way or another because she’s just another mouth to feed.

The miller’s daughter, who is a smart cookie, recognizes the problem and thinks about how she might create abundance. At this point I’d know that my ending will be either her success or final failure. I’d start making lists about how to move into my story. What’s this world like, aside from the famines? What caused the latest one? How might she go about resolving it? What are the attributes that will make the job easier? Harder? My lists will be guided by the ending I’m working toward.

So the ending is baked into my thoughts from the very earliest stages.

Here are four prompts:

∙ Pick one of the unresolved threads in P&P and write a scene from the sequel.

∙ Pick one of the unresolved threads in P&P and go through the process I used above for “Rumpelstiltskin.” Describe possible quests. Pick one and envision the inevitable ending. Write lists to move into the story. Write the first scene.

∙ Pick one of the other quests I listed for “Rumpelstiltskin.” Go through the process and write the first scene.

∙ Jump ahead in “Rumpelstiltskin” or your P&P sequel and write the final scene. Then, if you like, write the rest of the story from the beginning, aiming for the ending (which can change along the way).

Have fun, and save what you write!