Going Short

Here’s a grammar thing in my occasional (rare) remarks about grammar and usage. I just heard this mistake in an online poetry reading. You may know what’s correct, but if not, here it is. It isn’t a happy thing, but we writers should get it right. The past tense of hang when it comes to people is hanged. This from Merriam-Webster: “The Salem “witches” were not burned; they were hanged.” Otherwise, it’s hung.  For our purposes, though, there may be exceptions. If I were writing about elves, for example, I’d use hanged (although the idea of hanged elves is horrible). Same if the characters in my story were talking animals.

I have another less depressing one for the next post if I remember.

On December 12, 2019, Whimsical Wordsmith wrote, I was wondering how to keep stories short. I often come up with ideas for stories that I like and want to work on, and I dive right in. But the plots and subplots become more and more complex, and suddenly, I have a novel on my hands. I’m already in the process of writing a novel at the moment and can’t tackle another right now; how do I keep short stories short?

A conversation developed.

Katie W.: What you can do (and what I have done several times) is write a single episode in the larger story. Novel chapters are usually pretty good lengths for short stories. I’m not so good at incorporating the right bits of backstory to make it make sense to other people, but it might work a bit better for you. If you still want to try to write the entire story, you could try writing it from a summarizing standpoint, like authors do when they recap what’s happened in earlier books. It would make it more formal, possibly too formal for your taste, but it might work.

Whimsical Wordsmith: Thanks for the suggestion, that will definitely help. Maybe I didn’t word the rest of my question exactly right though:

How do I make short stories that stay short, but still include the important details? I try to incorporate the backstory, but it comes off as the character just spilling information to the character for no exact reason (I’m used to information being revealed through events and little snippets, but it becomes a little too long and slow in a short story). How do I determine what and what doesn’t need to be known to the reader?

Katie W.: Sorry, I can’t help you with that because I have exactly the same problem. I took a creative writing class this semester, and one of the most consistent bits of feedback I got was that there wasn’t enough world building/backstory for people to understand what was going on. The stories were about a third of the length I was used to, and for a lot of it I was working with characters I was already familiar with, and so I ended up leaving out a lot of stuff that apparently needed to be explained.

Raina: I think there are two ways to approach this issue: one is to recognize what story ideas are meant for short story form, and the second is to actually cut them down.

Some ideas are better fits for novels than short stories, and that’s perfectly fine! Just be aware of that, and be ready to approach them from a different angle. Generally a sign is complex or multiple subplots, or too many main characters. For me, the general rule of thumb is if I can’t plan out all of the plot events, beginning to end, without having to write stuff down, then it’s not meant to be a short story. Number of scenes can also be an indicator; short stories generally focus on a small slice of life that tells a complete story in a few scenes, or in some rarer cases, a large “tapestry” that covers a lot of time but uses a lot of telling instead of showing and never zooms in (like classic fairy tales). But it sounds like you already recognize when a short story is turning into a novel. What I’d recommend is to let it become a novel (just because you have an idea for a novel doesn’t mean you have to work on it right away! It’s perfectly fine to write your ideas down and come back to actually write the book when you’ve cleared off your plate) or get rid of all the subplots to turn it back into a short story.

As for how to cut your short story shorter: a good rule of thumb is that everything that does not relate to the central storyline in an important and unique way needs to go. And if you’ve gone through the steps above to make sure your story is a short story, your central storyline should be clear and relatively simple.

I’m going to argue that unlike in novels, details such as backstory, character development, and world-building only need to be there if they have a direct impact on the present action. And it only needs to be there once; if you already have a paragraph showing a personality trait of your character, you don’t need to have a different paragraph showing that same trait in a different way, unless it contributes something significantly new and important. For example, look at the classic short story “Lamb to the Slaughter” by Roald Dahl (Upper middle school and up, link here: http://www.classicshorts.com/stories/lamb.html), which is about a housewife who murders her husband in a crime of passion and gets away with it by feeding the murder weapon (a frozen leg of lamb) to the unwitting detectives. The story is 3899 words and has approximately 3 scenes covering about an evening of real time. Notice what details Dahl leaves out: most of Mary’s relationship with her husband, including the actual details of the conversation that incites her to murder. If this was a novel, it would be great to show a lot of flashbacks to see the intricacies of the relationship between Mary and Patrick, or little details to show their individual personalities. But in a short story, that would be unnecessary, because the story isn’t about Mary and Patrick’s failing marriage; it’s about Mary getting away with murder with a clever scheme. Dahl tells us what we need to know in broad strokes. Mary’s pregnant (which is relevant because that’s her motivation for trying to get away with murder), she’s a doting housewife who adores her husband (which is why she’s so shocked and devastated when he asks to divorce her, and puts her in the mindset for murder), and her husband just dumped her (which is what pushes her to murder). All of those directly relate to the central storyline, which is the murder and the subsequent cover-up.

I’m with Raina all the way.

If a story wants to be a novel, I say, Hooray! My mind also makes a natural beeline for complexity. Some of us are mainly novelists and some mostly short story writers.

But if you’re a novelist and want to try a shorter form, that’s terrific. We should stretch ourselves sometimes, in this case by shrinking!

I’m also with Raina about bringing in only a few major characters. In fact, I think that may be the most important strategy. I’d also suggest that only one character–or none!–is allowed a backstory, which will narrow our plot and keep it focused. The reader should really care only about our MC. Okay, maybe one other character can matter.

I haven’t read many short stories, but my favorite is “Cathedral” by Raymond Carver (high school and up). There’s very little action. The MC and his wife are visited by an old friend of hers who’s blind. The MC, who is an unappealing character, doesn’t like blind people. They eat dinner and watch a documentary on TV about a cathedral. The wife goes upstairs, comes down again, falls asleep on the couch. The blind man and the MC draw the cathedral in the documentary. That’s it, and yet the unlikable MC goes through a transformation and is barely the same person by the end. The story is an astonishment.

There are just three characters, and the only back story is related by the MC, and it’s about his wife. We never find out what made the MC the closed-off, biased person he is. We’re shown his personality vividly through his thoughts and don’t need anything more to participate as readers in his transformation.

So one choice we can make is to focus on character over action.

And to remember that backstory often isn’t necessary. We may need it for ourselves to understand our characters, but the reader doesn’t have to be in on the secret. Even in novels, backstory is no more than optional. In the Sherlock Holmes books, for example, we never learn what makes Holmes so brilliant and peculiar or why Moriarty is evil, and why Dr. Watson is ordinary. They just are.

Another strategy is to paint on a small canvas. If our setting is limited, we don’t have to devote a lot of words to it. “Cathedral” begins and ends in the MC’s home. The action may even take place in only one room, but I don’t remember well enough to be sure.

I have four published short stories in anthologies. One is a contemporary fantasy, and another would probably be described as contemporary science fiction. The other two are simply contemporary without any magic. If we stick with the modern world, we have only the fantasy element to explain, if it’s there. If we try fantasy, I’d say we should impose limits on our world-building. We can set our story in familiar settings, like a medieval town and then leave most of it to the reader’s imagination. We can allow ourselves, say, one dragon and one elf. We’re just asking for a novel if we include ogres, fairies, and changelings.

The premise of my short story, “Wish Week,” a contemporary fantasy, is that in a certain town, during Wish Week, the sixth graders make a wish, which, within certain limits, comes true–for a week. Only the child who made the wish remembers the results in detail. At the end of the week, everything snaps back to normal. My MC, who is in the middle of an argument with her best friend, wishes for the metaphor in the saying to come true: to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. My MC sees the effects globally as people understand the effects of their actions. The major characters are my MC and her best friend. Walk-on roles go to a former best friend, Tam’s mother, and a few staff at the middle school. Settings are limited, too. There’s brief backstory about the two friendships. The story is twenty-four pages long.

Endings can be less resolved than they often are in novels. The reader doesn’t find out if the transformation in “Cathedral” lasts more than a day. In Raina’s example, the reader doesn’t find out if Mary goes on to become known as the frozen-meat serial killer.

One more strategy: Keep the time frame of the story tight. “Lamb to the Slaughter” takes place in an evening. Same with “Cathedral.” “Wish Week” lasts a week or so. Longer times will cry out for more pages.

Here are four prompts:

• Your MC goes on a hike with a friend, and they meet one other person (or creature). When they come back, your MC has new insight into herself. Write the story.

• Fictionalize an anecdote from your life in a short story.

• If you’re in high school or high school plus, read “Cathedral,” which is available online, and write a short story (or a novel) that takes place earlier in the life of the MC. Or try one that takes place after the events in “Cathedral.” Or write both!

• Use my wish-week idea. Your MC makes a different wish. Write a story about what happens.

Have fun, and save what you write!

To Quirk or Not to Quirk

On December 10, 2019, future_famous_author wrote, How do you create a personality for your main character? For some odd reason, my main characters just seem to be girls who like to read and who are outgoing, at least for the most part. The side characters all have very distinct personalities, for example, the very proper princess who likes everything to be perfect and can’t stand anything that makes her seem like a commoner. Another princess is a complete rebel- she’s the youngest of three, and both of her older siblings someday rule a kingdom, leaving her to be kind of forgotten.

And then there’s my MC, who doesn’t have much personality. She’s pretty much every other girl.

How can I make her more distinct and unique?

Melissa Mead wrote back, Hm. What about this character made you pick her to be the MC? That could be a clue.

This is such an interesting question!

I’ve had the same worry myself. My secondary characters are generally quirkier than my MCs. And so are those of other authors. I don’t think this is necessarily a problem.

Let’s take Peter Pan by James M. Barrie. It’s told in third-person omniscient, and the narrator has personality along with the characters. But the eyes the reader most often sees the story through are Wendy’s. She’s sweet, kind, somewhat adventurous but also conventional and not very quirky. This allows the reader to slip inside her. I certainly did when I was little, and I still do.

Peter is strange, magical, irritating, brave. His thought process is alien. He’s fascinating–viewed from the outside, because it’s impossible to get in. When I was little, I wanted to marry him! I couldn’t understand why Wendy goes home.

Now I do. He’d be an impossible, unreliable partner. Too quirky!

Or take the Sherlock Holmes series by Arthur Conan Doyle. Watson is the POV character because he doesn’t have a big personality, and because, while not stupid, he isn’t extraordinarily smart. Doyle couldn’t put the reader inside Holmes’s head, because then the reader would have to see the steps Holmes takes to reach his conclusions, and the magic would evaporate.

I don’t often read novels or watch TV series with unsympathetic MCs, who always have distinctive qualities. I don’t enjoy being inside them, though a lot of people do–kind, decent people, who think these MCs are funny. So I mean no condemnation toward the writers who write unpleasant MCs. After all, these writers are most likely also kind, decent people, who just want to explore extreme characters. I want to do that, too, in my secondaries. For example, I’m captivated by many of my villains, like Skulni and Ivi in Fairest and Vollys in The Two Princesses of Bamarre.

Having said all this, of course we don’t want our MCs to be ciphers (nonentities). So how do we give them the kind of (probably limited) personalities that our readers can mind-meld with?

We can look to our plots for guidance, which is what I do, because I’m a plot-centered writer. Character is super important to me, but plot is paramount. If you’re like me, you can ask yourself, What does my MC need to succeed in the end and yet also have to struggle along the way? Ella, who has a curse of obedience to contend with, is naturally defiant. Addie in The Two Princesses of Bamarre, who has to face monsters in her quest for a cure to a dread disease, is shy and timid. Aza in Fairest, whose looks are unfashionable, is sensitive about them.

What will bring our MC’s environment into sharp relief and make her and our readers suffer for her? Loma in A Ceiling Made of Eggshells, whose life is full of stress, loves the orderliness of numbers and counts compulsively to calm herself. Dave in Dave at Night, who lives in the regimented world of an orphanage, is a rebel, which both gets him into trouble and saves him.

If we’re character rather than plot centered, we start with character. What problem can we give our defiant MC? A curse of obedience! What else? Whatever problem we give her, how else will it shape her? How else can we shape her around it?

So that’s one strategy: use our plots to determine our MC’s quirks.

Let’s look at Ella close up, and I hope I don’t spoil her for anybody. What do we discover as we read? She’s defiant, persistent, has a sense of humor, a warm heart, comes up with clever things to say, and is generally intelligent. Hardly unique. Her lack of uniqueness lets the reader inhabit her.

Let’s go back to Loma for a sec. Her counting obsession is a quirk. If she were a secondary character, I’d probably bring the quirk up often, because I want the reader to remember her. But since she’s my MC, I bring it in only occasionally and trust the reader to remember. For the rest, she’s clever and loyal. Her primary motivator is her deep love for children, especially for her nieces and nephews–a trait shared by many people.

So that’s another strategy: introduce the quirk, remind the reader occasionally, keep the character consistent with it, but don’t harp on it. The reader will remember.

Here are three prompts:

• Try writing a mystery from Sherlock Holmes’s POV. See if you can show the reader how his mind works and still keep his brilliance an enigma. If not, just go with him as he comes to you.

• Your MC is contending against her two brothers for the throne of Saker. The competition has three stages: to fetch a golden feather of the misa bird from the depths of a witch’s forest; to think of three policies that will make and keep the kingdom’s subjects happy; and to cross to the middle of an oiled tightrope to proclaim the three policies to the seven judges of the succession. And the unspoken final condition: to survive long enough to rule. Think about the qualities your MC needs to have to have a shot at success and the flaws that will get in her way. Give her a single quirk. Make the brothers super quirky. Write the story.

• Write the same story from the POV of one of the brothers.

Have fun and save what you write!

Back Side

Before the post, here’s info on a free virtual event: I’ll be talking about fairy tales on June 9th at 7:00 pm Central Daylight Time at the Waseca Le Sueur Fairytale and Folklore Festival. Here’ the link to register for my event: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLScephrVVNjHtNTfOZnDeyYDjZ4JrQlF9_1ZKiQWZWY9clgB4g/viewform. And here’s a link for the festival itself with all its great events: http://wasecalesueurlibraries.com/festival/. Hope you can e-come!

And I can’t resist showing you this in-depth review of A Ceiling Made of Eggshells: https://www.jewishbookcouncil.org/book/a-ceiling-made-of-eggshells.

Onto the post!

On December 10, 2019, Blue Rive wrote, How do you write long periods of character introspection/exposition on their backstory? When I do it, it tends to feel out of scene or ungrounded.

Katie W. has the same difficulty: Yes, help, please! With my traumatized MC I mentioned above, she does a lot of relating her past to the present, and I have her telling other characters about her backstory (so I don’t actually have to write it as narrative, since there are long periods where almost nothing happens), and I don’t want the backstory to take over the main story. Essentially, I don’t want a frame tale, but I want her to think about her past a lot, and I’m stuck.

First backstory, then introspection.

I’ll get to the questions as asked below, but first off, in my books, I mostly turn what might be backstory into the beginning of my book in forward moving action, if, that is, the character with the backstory is my MC and the backstory is important so that the reader can understand her. Fairest is an example of this approach. I start with Aza’s adoption, rather than much later with her first day in the royal castle as the duchess’s companion. This gives me space to develop her family and the consequences of her unfashionable appearance. By the time she gets to the castle, the reader knows what to worry about.

This way also allows me, since I’m a pantser, to make discoveries about Aza and my secondary characters along the way.

My guess for both Blue Rive and Katie W. is that their characters’ backstory is significant and probably dramatic. Then why not let it unfold and give it all the detail that front story allows?

About the long periods when not a lot is going on, we can use telling to zoom past these dull patches. For example, suppose our MC Madi’s trauma is bullying and the bully torments her only when she goes to her dance lessons. We can use the times in between to show events in other parts of our story, but when none of these are available, we can just say something like, Time flies when you’re having fear. It seemed like only seven minutes had passed in the seven days since the green-paint incident. Poof! The week (or months or even a year) is gone.

The problem with backstory can be that it interrupts forward momentum for the reader, who has to leave the excitement, get engrossed in the backstory, and then return to the story, which will have cooled in his mind.

If backstory is a must, though, we have choices. We can reveal it in memory or dialogue, or we can show it in a flashback. If in memory, we can use short bursts that provide bits of the history, which the reader assembles over time. Bursts mean that the reader doesn’t have to leave the unfolding action for long at all.

If we use dialogue, we can make the conversation part of the drama. Or we can have the chatting take place between high-tension scenes, when the reader is happy to have a little break.

If we choose flashbacks, we can show what happened in detail. This one does have the problem of interrupting the flow, but if the reader is invested in our story, he’ll make the leaps. I’ve posted here on the blog about flashbacks, so you can take a look, if you like.

Next introspection.

As a reader, I love being inside an MC’s head. I want to know how she’s reacting to everything that’s done to her and everything that she does back. Otherwise, I feel on uncertain ground. Sometimes I’m not sure I understand what’s going on.

When we’re writing in first person, the reader learns everything from the narrator, who is usually the MC. Unless she’s emotionally flat, her thoughts and feelings will flow naturally onto the page.

I just pulled out a few of my books to see how I handle thoughts, which, weirdly, I couldn’t describe without looking. I generally include them in little bits dropped into my story, but I found two pages of pretty solid thinking in The Two Princesses of Bamarre when MC Addie makes an important decision.

So that’s a strategy to keep the reader engaged in thoughts: use them to advance the plot.

Another is to use them to develop character. The reader learns how our MC processes what happens to her by thinking. A great example of this is J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, which I think is for high-school age readers and up. It’s a classic, though I was never fond of it. Still, when I looked a minute ago at an online sample, I saw that it’s all thoughts and without them I don’t believe there would be much. Worth looking at if you’ve never read it, or worth revisiting.

Our MC can also enhance the reader’s understanding of other characters through her thoughts. The reader, who’s gaining insights, is happy.

Voice and surprises are another strategy for keeping readers interested in our MC’s thoughts. If they’re entertaining to read (they don’t have to be happy thoughts), if she keeps surprising us with the workings of her mind, the reader will be eager to follow her through her ramblings, knowing he’ll be pleased with the journey.

Here are three prompts:

• Try writing “Cinderella” from the POV of a stepsister. She has a backstory that explains her cruelty to Cinderella. Think of what that backstory might be. Make a list of possibilities. Reveal the backstory in thoughts as the front story moves forward.

• Now do it the other way around. Start the stepsister’s story with what happened to make her cruel. Write it that way, as front story. Compare the ways the two versions unfold.

• Let’s use “Cinderella” and the bullying idea I introduced above. One stepsister is worse than the other, and every interaction with her–even just the sight of her–sets off compulsive thoughts in Cinderella. Write the story, including these thoughts, but vary them. Sometimes they show how Cinderella thinks, sometimes what she decides, sometimes her perspective on other characters. Explore the workings of her mind as if you’re on a tour: in this part charming flowers grow, but here is the circus of performing monsters, and here is the tunnel to early memories.

Have fun, and save what you write!


Before the post–drum roll! A Ceiling Made of Eggshells, about the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, is out! Hope you read it and enjoy it! If you haven’t already, I did a virtual launch on Facebook on May 14th following my usual daily reading. In it, I talk about the book and my research and take questions. You can see and hear it here: https://www.facebook.com/GailCarsonLevine/videos/3570405463045222/ If you’d like a bookplate-signed book, you can buy one at Byrd’s Books: https://byrdsbooks.indielite.org/.

Onto the post. On December 9, 2019, Superb♥Girl wrote, I feel like my two main characters are too similar, and I want them to be foils to each other. Y’all have any advice for creating opposites?

Several of you responded:

Erica: In some ways, similarities in personality can create more interesting situations than different personalities. That being said, change the less prominent character more than the more prominent character, and change only one thing at a time. That way, you can assess each change individually.

Melissa Mead: Show a point where they were both in a difficult situation, and made very different choices.

Blue Rive: I don’t know about creating foils–I’d like to learn how to do that better as well–but for making characters different, consider giving them defining quirks. For example, I have one character who’s very rational and thinks through everything she does logically, and then her friend wants to be a storyteller and thinks about things emotionally, plus has a very lyrical way of speaking and thinking.

For foils–I lied: I do have advice–make their personalities very different (though they don’t have to be opposite) but their actions (Catra and Glimmer from She-Ra) or backstories (Mura and Rat from The Nameless City) very similar.

These are great!

I’d never thought of Erica’s suggestion, to change the less prominent character more significantly than the most important one, and I like it, because it should make the revision easier and may lead to fewer plot adjustments.

The discussion about personality and action makes me think of my parents, who died over thirty years ago. I’m pretty sure I’ve told this anecdote here a long time ago. They were a love match. They squabbled sometimes, but my sister and I always knew that they loved each other–theirs was a romance that kept going.

Personality-wise, they were very different. My father showed three emotional states: joy, anger, and quiet (when something troubled him). Joy predominated, luckily for my sister and me. He didn’t reveal his inner life to anyone but my mother. She, on the other hand, presented emotional complexity–worried about everything, sometimes went into rages, had a bitter sense of humor, was afraid to show that she was happy (though we knew she was, fundamentally). Of course I loved them both, but she, prickly as she was, was easier to get close to.

When I was grown up and married, my husband David wanted to change jobs. After an interview, he brought home copies of the personality test he’d been given, which was pages and pages long. It may have been Myers-Briggs, which has come up several times here. I took the test at home. I don’t remember the results, but I came out quite differently from David. The next time we saw my parents, I gave each of them the test.

My mother completed it in the room where we all were, and she was finished in five or ten minutes. My father needed silence and shut the door behind him on an empty bedroom. He didn’t emerge for forty-five minutes.

When we scored it, they had each answered every single question identically!

First off, there are two strategies locked up in my anecdote for creating characters who differ from each other. One has been discussed a lot on the blog, that we can use Myers-Briggs or other personality tests to invent our characters. The other is, we can look around at real people we know or knew and use bits of them in our characters. Living (or dead) people offer traits we may not imagine out of our heads. We can write a short description of, say, seven actual people. Then we can stare at what we have and consider how we can use the descriptions in our stories.

Also, this anecdote makes me think about Melissa Mead’s comment. Real people and fictional ones are defined by their actions. Many factors shape personality, but two are certainly what happens to us and what we do about it.

My mother was an adolescent during the Depression. She never talked about that time, but I know the family was very poor, and there may have been times they didn’t have enough to eat, which I don’t doubt fueled her worrying. She was insanely (and sometimes embarrassingly) frugal. In a restaurant, for instance, after everyone had eaten the bread the server brought, she’d ask for more and stuff the second helping into her purse!

My father had a terrible childhood growing up in an orphanage. His joy may have been fueled by the certainty that everything in his future had to be better than that. He was a risk-taker and started his own business.

But it isn’t always so straightforward. My mother’s ethics when it came to property were slippery. If, when she was clothes shopping, for example, she liked a dress that had belt loops but no belt, she’d be outraged and would help herself to a matching belt. (She was never caught, and I would have pitied any store detective who nabbed her!)

My father professed to be horrified by this tendency in her, but I once saw him behave just as dodgily. He took me to a farm stand to buy corn, and, on the way, told me that the farmer always gave customers an extra ear when they bought a dozen. This time the farmer didn’t. When we got home, to my astonishment and dismay, he produced a thirteenth ear, which he’d pilfered.

I hasten to add that their children didn’t inherit our parents’ propensity to steal!

So two stressed childhoods, which were differently stressed, produced both similar and dissimilar actions. Same with our characters. While we distinguish them, we can also create likenesses, which will surprise readers. When something happens, we can decide on their responses, which will be predictable and not predictable.

Voice, like action, is a tool for character development. If these characters alternate POV, we can distinguish their voices. One can narrate in long, multi-clause sentences, that display an impressive vocabulary. The other voice can be direct, simple–short sentences and short words. One can often ask questions. The other can use exclamations. The narrations can reveal their inner lives. Going back to my parents, one inner life can be anxious, the other brimming with optimism. My WIP has two POV characters, one for the first half of the book, the other for the second. The first half is in the past tense, the second in present. I’m hoping that simply changing tense will go a long way toward differentiating them.

If we’re not writing in first person, or if only one MC narrates, we can use dialogue in the same way as I described in the last paragraph.

We can set up an argument between the two characters that will highlight their differences. In an argument, more than words and volume set people and characters apart. Again, it’s worth thinking about real people here. Some retreat into silence. Some play down a problem, others exaggerate it. There are physical differences, too. A friend’s eyebrows slant up alarmingly when she’s angry. A cousin tends to drum on something withe his fingertips. We can make a list!

Here are three prompts:

• We return to “The Three Little Pigs.” This time, have the them argue about house construction. Write their dialogue. Show their different personalities in the way they fight. If you can, without ever saying outright which pig builds which house, make the reader know.

• Describe five people you know, a paragraph or so for each. Then pick one of the Biblical plagues on Egypt, like frogs or boils. Write another paragraph about how they’d respond. If you like, use what you come up with in a story.

• Try a Freaky Friday idea. There’s a big power differential between your two MCs, like school principal versus a new student, or starship commander versus a cadet, or duchess versus a stable hand. Or any other asymmetric relationship you pick. Have them change places for a day, a week–whatever you like. Write a story about how they respond to their new situation.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Burrowing Into the Blur

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

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

A few of you weighed in.

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

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

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

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

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

These are terrific!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are three prompts:

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

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

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

Have fun, and save what you write!

Contest! Special Announcement!

I think this is worth an extra, quick post, though it’s probably for your younger siblings or your children. Starting a few days ago, Barnes & Noble is sponsoring a writing contest for kids between six and twelve and publishing the winners in an anthology, which will have a foreword by me. (I will not be one of the judges.) Here’s a link for the details: https://www.barnesandnobleinc.com/press-release/barnes-noble-launches-national-childrens-short-story-contest/.


Before the post, I want to let you know about the online Everywhere Book Fest on May 1st and 2nd. When an in-person festival was canceled, participating authors got together to move it online, and this is the result. I’ll be on a panel on writing historical fiction with the wonderful writers Linda Sue Park and Anne Bustard for forty-five minutes on May 1st at 1:00 pm Eastern Daylight Time. You can watch on Facebook or YouTube (at the festival’s site, not mine). The panel will be live, so you can ask questions in real time. Here’s a link to the festival: https://everywherebookfest.com/. Hope you can e-come!

Also, there’s a blog post on HarperCollins’s website that I wrote about my historical novel, A Ceiling Made of Eggshells: https://harperstacks.harpercollins.com/blog/writing-familiar-strangers-gail-carson-levine-on-her-familys-long-history-of-migration/. The post doesn’t say, but I’ll tell you, in the photo of the two boys on a pony, my father is the younger boy. Cute, wasn’t he?

And, you may know that I’m reading a chapter a day of Ella Enchanted on my Facebook page, at 11:00 am Eastern Daylight Time. Some of you, I know, are watching. You can comment, so I can know you’re there, which is heartening.

Onto the post!

On December 5, 2019, future_famous_author wrote, How do you guys deal with being stuck? Like writers’ block, but you know where you want to go, you just don’t know how to get there?

Writing Ballerina wrote back, I read a great blog post that summed up what writer’s block really is: https://jerryjenkins.com/writers-block/.

If this doesn’t help, I’d also say to write the part that you know is going to happen, then go back and show how you got there. Writing the part might help you figure out how you’re going to get there.

Interesting link, Writing Ballerina! I’m with Mr. Jenkins, except about the “faucet of creativity.” My faucet comes out in drips, occasional spurts; and sometimes it’s pretty clogged.

I see two questions here: how to deal with being stuck; and how to move a story where you know you want it to go, but you don’t have a clue about how to get it there. The second question, in my opinion, is about plotting.

I agree with Mr. Jenkins about setting daily goals, in my case a time goal rather than a page goal. Something usually happens when we place our fingers on our keyboard or pick up our pen. We write, maybe not, seemingly, to the purpose we’re hoping for, but we write something, maybe about what’s going on in the world or how annoying certain people in our lives can be. These ramblings are likely to loosen us up. At worst, we understand better what’s going on with ourselves, and there’s nothing wrong with that. At best, our ruminations eventually move to the territory of our story. We start to write what’s going on there, what’s frustrating us, what the roadblocks are.

I do all this in my Ideas document for every book I write. Ideas is where I go to get unstuck (and it’s also where I try out new ideas and even write parts I’m uncertain about). Sometimes I say I’m going to write for twenty minutes without stopping about what’s going on in my story and how and why it’s giving me trouble.

Everything is up for grabs when we’re stuck. For example, Writing Ballerina writes that she knows where she wants her story to go. Well, in Ideas, I might question even that. I’d wonder if my story, without letting me know, has decided it wants a different ending, and maybe that’s what’s holding me up. Then I’d think about why it may have made that decision and what the new ending might be.

Of course I lean on lists when I’m stuck, and when I am, it’s especially important to remind myself that nothing on a list is stupid. I can include an ending in which all my characters turn into caterpillars, if that occurs to me. That kind of freedom is, well, freeing. I feel as if my skull is actually cracking open–in a good way. Stupid-is-okay is un-glue when we’re stuck.

Now for plotting.

The dynamic at the heart of our story is our MC and her struggle. What does she want? Or what is the dilemma she’s in that she has to get out of?

If we know what that is, we can look at our ending and see if it reflects her success (or failure, if we’re writing a tragedy). We can make sure that our ending is about her and not a more general resolution. If it is about her, we think about how to make achieving the end hard for her. How can we use our characters, her own inner demons, and our world to create scenes in which she fails and tries again? (If this will be a tragedy, the trajectory will be different, because, usually, we want her to get closer and closer to success, until, finally, boom! everything falls apart.) In our plotting we can think about using each one (other characters, her own flaws, and the setting) to make trouble for her. Meanwhile, we keep an eye on the ending, and see which failure can be decisive to bring her to success and our ending.

If our ending doesn’t reflect what our character wants or needs, we can rethink one or the other. Maybe we have to tweak our ending to bring our MC into it more so that the general success is her success. Or, we may have to think about her and what she wants and make that line up more with the direction of the story.

Using our Ideas document, we might lay out a timeline for our story. How much time passes between the beginning we have and the ending we imagine? What scenes do we absolutely want? We can write those scenes out of order, just because we know we want them and they’re bits we can hang onto and actually write during our stuck period.

Once they’re written, we can think about scenes that might go before the new ones and come after them, like writing a story as a series of dots along a line. We have a line that starts with our beginning and terminates, you guessed it, at the end. We don’t have to fill in every–or any–dot in order. This is a pantsing method that gets us where we want to go.

Here’s another technique. We have a beginning and an MC who wants something or is in trouble. (If the MC’s problem isn’t set up, try some of my ideas above). Then we’re stuck until the end. So we go to our beginning and ask, What if? We list the possible things that could happen next and choose the one that interests us the most. We write that scene and repeat. Repeat. Repeat. We’re guided through our What if?s and the resulting lists by two considerations: our MC’s problem and the ending we’re aiming for. We’re asking ourselves along the way, Will this What if? idea get us closer or farther from solving our MC’s issue? If the answer–closer or farther–is yes, that’s good, because we’re either creating crises that are connected to our central issue or resolving them. If the answer is that it doesn’t get us either closer or farther, we should rethink the What If idea, because it may lead us into a cul-de-sac.

Here are three prompts:

• Remember the fable about the race between the tortoise and the hare? I like it because if a movie studio picked it up I’d be a good choice to play the tortoise. But it’s a dull story. The tortoise just puts one horned foot in front of the other. The reader knows the beginning, the middle (which can be summed up in a short sentence), and the end. Where’s the drama? Who are these characters, besides being steady or flighty? How much do they care about the race? Is there a prize? Do they like or hate each other? Take the fable and turn it into a real story. Your characters can be the actual animals or people or any kind of creature.

• “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” is unsatisfying, too. She just wanders into the bears’ cottage and, after behaving badly and being discovered, she runs out. What are the consequences for the bears, for Goldilocks? Do they ever have a relationship? Maybe she wasn’t polite, but the bears don’t show much compassion, either. They don’t ask if she was starving, if she’s homeless, what’s going on in her family. Make it a story. Decide on an MC and what his or her or their problem is. Imagine an ending. Write it all.

• Off topic, but make up a noun that means the opposite of glue. Unglue is a word, but only as a verb. There should be a noun! Please post your nominations. I’m curious. Maybe there’s a word in another language, which you know. If we all use one that you provide, we can introduce it into English.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Worth Reading

First off, I hope everyone is well, staying safe, and contributing to the safety of others. David and I are okay and very grateful that dogs don’t get the virus.

And, letting you know, in addition to my ongoing daily Facebook reading of a chapter of Ella Enchanted, last week I did a Q&A talk, also on my Facebook page, sponsored by the Harold Grinspoon Foundation and PJ Library. It’s still there, so you can watch and listen. I can’t say how heartened I was when both Melissa Mead and Christie V Powell showed up in the comments scroll.

Now for the post. On December 5, 2019 NerdyNiña wrote, When you’re writing a fairy tale retelling, how do you make it have a real plot? I’m trying to write a mashup of “Sleeping Beauty” and “Rapunzel.” I have my characters, and a good idea of the themes I want, but I don’t know what to have happen to make it a story worth reading. Can anyone help?

Several of you weighed in.

future_famous_author: What I do when I don’t know what kind of story to write is that I just make a new document on my computer (or get a new page in a notebook) and use bullet points. Write what comes to your mind. One time when I was doing this I ended up with a really good story. One of the words that I wrote, though, was a llama, and I did not use that word. And maybe rereading the fairytales, if you haven’t already done that, would help you. Maybe think about how you want to start it and just start writing. I have done this often, where I don’t have a plot, just a character, and a beginning, and the story ends up really good.

Yay! future_famous_author uses lists! I use bullet points, too.

Melissa Mead: I pick the parts of fairy tales that make me ask questions or roll my eyes. For example, with “Snow White,” I’ve always wondered “Why would the Prince want to kiss a dead girl?”

(Gail, if this is an out=of-line shameless plug, rather than an example, please remove it!)

Here’s one answer I came up with: https://dailysciencefiction.com/hither-and-yon/twisted-fairy-tales/melissa-mead/white-as-snow-red-as-blood

Me: Not a shameless plug. That was one of my questions when I wrote Fairest.

Raina: If you’re talking about coming up with plots in general, Gail has a ton of great posts in the archives tagged “plot” or “plotting”. One thing that also really helped me was learning about story structure and beat sheets, such as the Save The Cat method, which is what I use. (You can find the book Save the Cat: The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need by Blake Snyder at your local library, or google one of the free summaries online.)

Thank you, Raina!

More Raina: If you’re talking about fairy tale retellings specifically, I think a good thing to remember is that (generally) your story should be an original story first, and a retelling second. It can definitely borrow characters, events, and themes from the original, but your priority should be making sure that those characters, events, and themes all contribute to making YOUR story, rather than trying to make everything match up to the original. For me, the litmus test is when a retelling is able to stand on its own as an engaging story, even if the person has never read the original fairy tale. (Though of course, if they’ve read the original, they should enjoy it even more because they’ll be able to spot the parallels!)

future_famous_author: In my version of “Little Red Riding Hood,” Red was actually friends with the wolves, and the “big bad wolf” was a man who was trying to kill the wolves and wore a wolf hide. I hardly followed the storyline of LRRH at all. I had some wolves, a girl with a red hood taking treats to her sick grandma at the beginning, and some bad guys who try and stop her.

Oy! The worth-reading worry! This is a question we should never ask: not when we’re thinking about what to write, not when we’re in the thick of it, not when we finish, not when we revise, not when we send out our query letter, which will not contain words like, “I’m not sure this is worth reading, but I hope you will think it is.” !!! And not even when it’s published or ten years later. It is a question not worth thinking! It doesn’t help; it just hinders. The only important initial question is, Does this interest me?

I agree with everyone above about fairy tale retellings. Mine have run the gamut from close to the original to light years away. Right before I started writing Ella Enchanted, I read Beauty by Robin McKinley, which I love. This retelling of “Beauty and the Beast” hews close to the original and yet stands as a unique creation. I’ve never managed to be that faithful. It’s an achievement–

–that we don’t have to achieve–

–unless we want to.

Most fairy tales have been around for hundreds of years. They’ve lasted because they’re exciting; they’re generally short and packed with action. And they touch deep places in us. For me, the original “Cinderella,” for example, is at bottom about feeling unappreciated–even though I didn’t take the story that way. Cinderella does everything right and tries so hard, and all she gets is grief. We aren’t told if she loves her stepfamily, but they certainly don’t love her. Everybody (or almost everybody) has felt undervalued and misunderstood.

We can use those deep meaning to fuel our plots. The meaning you take from a fairy tale is likely to be different from mine. For me, for instance, “Hansel and Gretel” is fundamentally about abandonment, but for someone else it might be about poverty. “Snow White” makes me think about jealousy and rage, but others may find kindness and love–in the generosity of the dwarfs.

If we go with abandonment, we can give Hansel nightmares and make Gretel more conscientious than a child should be, because both children sense that their parents are unreliable. We can invent earlier incidents during good times when the parents behaved irresponsibly. We can bring in the witch during one of those incidents. If we know what the underlying big issue is, we can figure out how to structure our story. Once the two of them are in the witch’s cabin, knowing what we know about each of them, we can decide how they’ll be together in that very small space. If we’re following the fairy tale, we can plan how the two children manage to stay alive but almost fail a few times. It’s all informed by abandonment and, possibly, their commitment to never abandoning each other.

I also do as Melissa Mead does: look for leaps of logic, plot turns that make absolutely no sense. Why does feeling a pea under twenty mattresses prove royal blood? Why does the prince fall in love with Sleeping Beauty when she’s, well, asleep and he’s never met her and she’s about a hundred years older than he is, even if she doesn’t look it? Why does the Beast frighten Beauty’s father and threaten him if he (the Beast) is really a good guy at heart? Why, oh why, does Snow White fall for the evil queen three times in a row?

We can contemplate these goofy parts and see how we can explain them. Let’s take the prince and Sleeping Beauty. Why does he go on the crazy quest in the first place? We can make a list! Remember nothing is stupid on a list:

∙ He’s on the lam. He stole the golden astrolabe of the Admiral of the Fleet. A party of knights is after him, and there’s this hedge.

∙ His mother insists he marry his distant cousin, Merna, whom he hates. He’s refused, and now he’s been exiled. He’s been riding for days, and there’s this hedge.

∙ He lives in the next town over, and the hedge has grown so high that it blocks the sun from the wheat fields. Crops are failing. He hacks his way through the hedge to find the authorities and tell them to trim the darn hedge!

And so on. A nice list has ten to fifteen possibilities. As you can see, these possibilities are complicated. We probably have to set them up, which could take half a novel. Meanwhile, we have to keep an eye on the sleeping princess and decide how she can complicate the problems and then lead eventually to their solution. I happen to love this approach.

Here are four prompts:

∙ Write the abandonment story of Hansel and Gretel.

∙ Write a version of “Hansel and Gretel” using poverty as the underlying problem. Or pick another issue that strikes you as at the core of the problem.

∙ Write seven more “Sleeping Beauty” possibilities. Pick one of yours or one of mine and write the story.

∙ Write a version of “Snow White” that begins in the dwarfs’ cottage and explain SW’s behavior each time the evil queen shows up.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Louie, Louie

In New York State, people over seventy (I’m seventy-two) or with health challenges that make them particularly vulnerable have been told to stay home. (Just saying to put you at ease, I have no health challenges.) Stay home period. Groceries are left outside our gate. I’m lucky to have my husband and my dog, to keep company with, and a big backyard to walk in. And to have you guys–to be able to read your questions, discussions, and the way we support each other. Please, everybody, be careful and stay well!

On December 4, 2019, in response to my plea for questions, Melissa Mead wrote, Questions….let’s see…

I write really slowly. Any tips on writing faster/spending less time chasing red herrings?

The WIP has 2 POV characters. How can I balance out their timelines?

I wrote back, About the first, I’m very slow too, and I chase red herrings, which sometimes turn out to be crucial. I’ll take a stab at this one from the standpoint of a fellow easily distracted writer.

I’ve added this to my list, but are they together, interacting, or are they in different places?

And Melissa Mead answered, In different places–and they’re essentially 2 versions of the same person. in different places, interacting with some of the same people, but at different times. They meet up once or twice in the course of the story, and at the end.

My brain hurts just trying to explain it.

Raina came in with these suggestions: For the writing faster, this method helped me tremendously, and I’ll let the original author explain it much better than I ever could: www.thisblogisaploy.blogspot.com/2011/06/how-i-went-from-writing-2000-words-day.html.

The part that particularly changed my way of thinking was Side 1: Knowledge, or Know What You’re Writing Before You Write It. I use her method for outlining scenes before writing them for nearly everything I write now, and now the actual writing goes so much smoother. Of course, my scene summaries tend to be looong and take me a while to write so I don’t know if I’m actually saving time, but it feels so much easier and that alone is worth it for me.

For timelines, I really like this NaNoWriMo blog post about plotting your story like a subway map: www.blog.nanowrimo.org/post/166302962291/nano-prep-outline-your-story-like-a-subway-map. I’m a visual person who loves using number lines to visualize plotting and pacing, so this was right up my alley. Your results may vary, but it’s worth a look, especially for complicated/multiple plot lines.

If you’re talking about in-story *time*, specifically, rather than narrative pacing, I found that a simple schedule helps, at least on a small scale. I planned out my MC’s day like an agenda (12 AM: arrival. 1-2 AM: getting settled in. 2:15 A.M.: visit another character) and it helped me keep track of timing and how long things should take. It also helps to remember that narrative pacing and in-story time can be very different; a 3,000-word scene that’s mostly dialogue can take place in less time than it actually takes to read, while a single paragraph of a character traveling can take place over hours or even days. It also helps me catch when I forget to make characters eat or sleep.

Thank you, Raina! I especially like the enthusiasm side and the techniques to ramp it up. Being eager to write a scene makes everything easier and more fun.

There’s this quote attributed to Oscar Wilde, although the wording varies. It goes something like, “I had a busy and productive day. In the morning, I took out a comma, and in the afternoon, I put it back in.”

He was talking about poetry, and poets are notoriously finicky and precious. Still, everyone’s pace is different, and we should take credit, as Oscar Wilde did, for our productivity (even if the word count is zero).

As I’ve said here, I’m slow. I don’t know if all pantsers are. But lately, I’ve had to face the fact that I allow the online world, especially emails, to contribute to my pokiness. I’ve started limiting email checking to half-hour intervals, and I’ve already noticed improved concentration.

But it isn’t only email. I google too much. As you may know, I’m writing about the Trojan War. Near the end of the war, thirteen Amazon women came to the aid of Troy. Thirteen is a small number, but the Amazons (who really existed) were fabulous warriors, and they cut a swath into the Greek army. I’ve read a book about them, The Amazons, Lives & Legends of Warrior Women Across the Ancient World by Adrienne Mayor. They were Scythians, an ancient people, who were technologically advanced for the time: among the first to domesticate the horse and to smelt iron. Most of all, for my purposes, their bows were far and away better than any others, smaller but more powerful than those of the Greeks. The Scythian bow was complicated, consisting of wood, animal horn, sinew, and animal glue. Making a single bow took a few years, so each one was precious. My MC is a young bowyer (bow-maker), so I need to understand the process.

I’ve spent hours online, reading articles, watching YouTube demos, and–in terms of frittering–learning many fascinating things I may never need. The whole process still isn’t clear to me, but I may have enough for the writing. I now know how to make glue from my dog’s collection of half-chewed rawhide!

So we limit our email checking, our Facebook looking, our tweeting (I don’t do that one), our Instagram gawking (guilty!). We set limits.

Pantser that I am, I now know that I need a fundamental, very basic, maybe just half a page, outline. And I have to know, more or less, the ending. With those two, I’m confident that I have a real story and not a meandering maze. And with them, I write (slightly) faster.

I write faster, too, as I get farther along and the choices narrow, and the excitement builds–I think this is the enthusiasm side. So, it will help us to keep our eyes on the prize, our basic plot and our ending.

A deadline can help, too. It does for NaNoWriMo writers. I have deadlines, but I generally push them so far out that a non-English speaking writer could probably learn the language from scratch and make my deadline. (Slight exaggeration.) Even if you don’t have a waiting editor, you can set a deadline.

However, we all go at our own pace and take our pleasure where we may. I like fiddling and rewriting as I go and making lists and seeing what I come up with. I enjoy framing and reframing a sentence sometimes and sometimes getting an elegant turn of phrase. These do slow me down, I guess, but they also are part of what I love. I won’t come anywhere close to the output of the late science fiction writer Isaac Asimov, who, in his seventy-two years, wrote or edited more than five hundred books–I’d have to live more than five hundred years!

In terms of the timeline for Melissa Mead’s two characters, a chart might help. Since they’re versions of the same character, lets call them Louie One and Louie Two. The chart might consist of a column for each Louie with a third column for dates and times. For some times, when the action is intense, we’ll need to include hours and possibly even minutes. For example, the left-hand column might show Saturday, 9:00 am. Next column: Louie One, dusting the bric-a-brac in his front parlor. Third column: Louie Two, spooning arsenic into his delicious lamb stew. Next line: 10:00 am. Louie One, not in story. Louie Two, ladling stew into mason jars. And so on. (I don’t know if they can be in separate places at the same moment–Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde couldn’t be.)

I think the chart can be used either during the writing or in revision–or both.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Jack and Jill live in the kingdom of Desertia, which has been in a drought for fifty years. Throughout their whole young lives, they’ve heard rumors of a well on a certain hill. A pail of water from that amazing well will inexhaustibly irrigate all the farms in the kingdom. There are conditions, though. Not a drop of water may be spilled, and the pail may be lowered into the well only once. In half an hour of real time, write any scene from Jack and Jill’s journey to the hill. Decide if you’d like to spend the half hour writing the tragic denouement.

∙ Jack lives in western Desertia, and Jill lives in the far east. The well is over the northern border in the kingdom of Floodovia. In an exchange of letters, they agree to meet at the bottom of the hill at sunrise on a certain morning. Each encounters obstacles on the way. Jump back and forth between them, and write their travels, keeping track of the time, so that they do arrive as arranged.

∙ Both Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are diarists, though their styles are quite different. Dr. Jekyll mulls over every word, and Mr. Hyde writes at a fever pitch, the heck with grammar, spelling, and handwriting. Write a diary for each of them.

Have fun, and save what you write!