7/10/23 Homework


The homework will be on my blog on my website: www.gailcarsonlevine.com. Click on the blog. If you’re participating remotely, email your work to me as a Word attachment or with a Google Docs link by Wednesday at the latest: gclevine@ayortha.com. I’d like three to five double-spaced pages if the work is typed. If you’re hand writing your work and bringing it with you, skip lines on your pad. If your pad isn’t lined, estimate the spaces. Three to five pages too. Please write clearly and big enough for old eyes to see with reading glasses. Please don’t write with pink or yellow ink, or with a pencil unless you press hard. If you have questions, you can email me at gclevine@ayortha.com, or phone me at 845-490-9368.

These are endings. Pick one and write the scene or story that led to it.

  • It could have been the happiest day of my life.
  • I hated Sam forever after.
  • Holding the magic gift, Jadon rode away on a silver steed.
  • The three of them stood on their heads and kicked their feet in the air.
  • Negotiations ended. The aliens landed.



  • Your main character is on a boat. It’s up to you what kind of boat and why your main character is there. A pirate ship pulls up next to it and the pirates begin to board. Write what happens.
  • Your main character wakes up and hears fire crackling. Write what happens.
  • Your main character is babysitting a three year old, who, while they’re reading a picture book, turns into an entirely different creature—your pick, could be a small dragon, a big squirrel, an alien, or anything else. Write what happens.
  • During a math lesson on the first day in a new school, your main character unexpectedly turns into a mermaid or merman. Write what happens.
  • Your main character, while licking an ice cream cone, suddenly develops amnesia. Write what happens.

Dear Blog Reader,

On Monday, July 10th, I’m starting my annual writing workshop for kids in my home town, and this year I’m going to post weekly homework for participants here. If this works out (since I’ve never done it before), you’ll see five sets of prompts over three weeks. You are free to write from them too, and I hope you will. If it doesn’t work out, you’ll know because the prompts will stop.

I still keep an eye on the blog, and when comments come in, I read them, and I’m grateful for those of you who jump in to help with questions.

Can’t help myself: Have fun, and save what you write!


Fare Thee Very Well

First off, I’m going to be signing books at two book festivals in New York’s Hudson Valley that are coming up in the next few weeks. Details are here on the website on the Appearances page. And there will be a couple of events coming up for my new book, Sparrows in the Wind, which will be released on October 25th, so please keep an eye on the page.

Second off, I’ve decided to stop posting to the blog for a while at least, leaving open the possibility of starting up again. I’ve loved writing to you here for over thirteen years, and I’ve been delighted to watch the community that’s developed and how helpful you’ve been to each other. By now, though, I think I’ve touched on every major writing issue more than once, which you can search for right here. And I’ve invented enough prompts to set off a lifetime of writing. Please know that the prompts are for you to use—you don’t have to worry about copyright issues if you do.

For now, I’m going to leave the blog open on this website for you to continue conversations, and I’ll keep an eye on what comes in. A special shoutout here to Christie V Powell, who has commented often and always helpfully. Thank you!

For those of you who, like me, are worrywarts, I’m fine—and busy, working on a new book (the medieval murder mystery) and getting used to and loving our new puppy, Tess.

The thread that’s run through most of my posts on every writing topic has been the damaging effects of being too judgmental about our writing. Self-criticism hobbles us and gets in the way of finishing our stories. We—you!—need to find a way to put the judgments aside. Could be a spell that you recite every day before starting. Could be writing down the criticism on a slip of paper and stuffing the paper into a piggy bank. Could be hanging “For Fun” signs around your laptop or wherever you write. Or something else, which you can suggest in the comments.

Every writer on earth makes mistakes. There’s no such thing as a perfect book. We get better as we go along, and as we revise—the most important part in my writing universe. And I can’t end without saying that lists of possibilities are this writer’s best friend.

Have fun, and save what you write!


On January 30, 2022, Ruby wrote, Does anyone have any advice about writing religions?

Evelyn asked, Making up a new one or writing an existing one into your story?

And Ruby answered, I’d like to write a new one.

A discussion followed.

Evelyn: I’d suggest keeping it simple, or only mentioning the parts that relate to your story and you can hint at anything else. For instance, if you have a girl who lives by an angry river, and if you have a river god in your story, the river god will probably be part of your story, because people will try and appease the river god so the river won’t flood. There are probably plenty of other river gods, but they won’t enter into the story. I’ve never actually put a religion into one of my stories, because it’s a really touchy topic sometimes, but I’ve played around with it sometimes, and the simplest ones are usually the best ones for me.

Christie V Powell: I found this article that brings up some good things to consider: https://themudworldblog.com/writing-fantasy-religions

Gail’s Ever does a great job at handling religion, in my opinion. I love that the story brought up questions and didn’t always answer them. Questioning became a central part of the main character, not treated like a bad thing.

So far, most of my fantasy religions have been just a little bit in the background to add some worldbuilding flavor. The Sprites’ worship of Earth is the most developed: they have a creation story that Earth is a goddess, daughter of Sun and Moon, and they worship all three but mostly Earth. They believe that Sun created plants, Moon animals, and Earth people (or just other Sprites, which brings conflict). I’ve kind of been hesitant because religion is a big part of my life, and because it can be such a divisive topic.

Another author to come to mind is Brandon Sanderson. He is very religious (my religion, actually), and he does a really good job at creating new ones for his books, while being respectful to real-life people.

NerdyNiña: I’ve been working on the same thing. The challenge for me is making a religion that reflects my beliefs, showing the heart of what I believe but with different traditions. You might want to learn about various religions from many cultures and combine elements you like.

Christie V Powell’s link is comprehensive and suggests lots of story ideas—well worth a visit, I think. As we go through it, we can think about which aspects will be important to the story and characters we have in mind. Or we can use the link to generate a story and characters from scratch. Whichever way we go, though, if we include every element that’s covered, we are likely to overburden our tale.

Having said that, however, here’s a link to the religions in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series: https://discworld.fandom.com/wiki/Religions_of_the_Discworld. Pratchett is lighthearted and endlessly inventive. He uses footnotes a lot, and doesn’t mind if he (temporarily) submerges his plot in the intricacies of whatever he’s having fun with. You can play around with his approach.

When I put religion in a book, it is there to serve my plot because I’m, fundamentally, a plot-driven writer (who, as I’ve said here a jillion times, finds plotting super hard).

Thanks, Christie V Powell, for the shoutout to Ever!

I agree with everyone that inventing a religion can be tricky. In Ever, I invented two religions, one a pantheon vaguely resembling the Greek gods. These gods are powerful but not all powerful. They visit humans and can be seen, heard, and even touched if the human dares. They have personalities and whims and don’t always help humankind. This one offended no one. The other imagines a monotheistic religion with an omnipotent, omniscient, invisible god. I never saw a review by a reader that expressed out-and-out anger over what I’d done, but there were hints of discomfort.

I didn’t see any other way to tell the story I wanted to tell, so I took a chance. You can too, but just know the risk you run. Ever does question absolute faith when it bumps up against a terrible choice.

The safer course is to invent a religion that doesn’t resemble any that have millions of followers today.

What are the components of a religion that we can fool around with? A deity or deities, beliefs, worshipers, religious leaders, a holy book, places of worship, rituals, etc. What can we do with these? We can spend a pleasant day making lists. First on our list might be that the deity has the mentality of a hive of bees. And we list five more. A core belief could be that the natural state of the universe is unbroken green; then we list five more. And so on.

When we have a bunch of lists each with, say, six possibilities, we cast our eyes down the list to see what plot and character ideas come to us. For example, the hive mentality deity could suggest conformist worshipers who are stung by actual bees when they fall out of line, and we might think of a well-meaning worshiper who can’t be like everyone else no matter how hard she tries. Our list may suggest other ideas that will go with this one.

We can also lean on mythology or ancient history or even other writers’ ideas (so long as we change them enough to make them our own). Let’s take one of Pratchett’s ideas: the Listening Monks, who believe that nothing made by the creator they believe in can be destroyed. And let’s imagine that on the way to creating humans, this creator made mistakes which even It couldn’t destroy. Some mistakes are evil and destructive, some just weird, and some beneficial but not consistent with Its ideas about how future history should play out. Since It couldn’t destroy any of Its own creations, It imprisoned them on a huge rock in an enormous ocean. Where can we go from here? The monks (or one particular monk) may think that the imprisonment is one of the mistakes the creator made and may feel that their sacred duty is to free them. The imprisoned things and creatures may have a project to free themselves. Or something else.

We can decide ahead of time the tone of our story. Dark? Funny? Suspenseful but happy in the end? Or we can let our possibilities lead us to a decision.

We have to let our minds fly for this and not limit ourselves by criticizing our ideas. I suggest ignoring plot and character possibilities until we’re done making our lists.

Of course, the religion may not be central to our story. Then we can just fold it into our setting. Our MC doesn’t go to the temple as often as her mom would like. When she does go, she tunes out the priest’s warnings, but the seats that bounce in time with the rockin’ chorus are pretty cool.

We can have fun with the religious elements. The prayers can be limericks. The robes can be lined with velvet or with burrs depending on how the worshiper behaved in the past week. And so on.

Here are three prompts:

  • Write the story of the rebel in the hive-mentality religion.
  • A scribe intentionally revised a sentence in the bible of your imaginary religion and duplicated the change in every copy he made thereafter. Tell the story of what happens.
  • The imprisoned creatures have concentrated for centuries on growing wings. They’ve finally succeeded. Write what happens.

Have fun and save what you write!

Unicorn Horns

On December 7, 2021, Miss Maddox wrote, I’m having some trouble with setting. In one of my stories, I have a magical inn. In my head, the inn always seems really fantastical and fun, but when I try to write it down it just seems pretty normal and not very interesting. The same thing is happening with another magical location in another story, this one a house belonging to a family of witches. Does anyone have any tips for how to make the magical parts of these settings really stand out?

Two of you wrote back.

Belle Adora: Quirks! In many stories, the places that are fantastical and different feel that way because the author puts quirks into the story. For example… in The Harry Potter series, many things seem fantastical. mysterious, and exciting because of oddities. Some, like Hogwarts’ moving staircases, floating candles, and Forbidden Forest are obvious, but there are small things that change the way we see a place. Such as the Weaslys’ house, if we didn’t hear about their trouble with screaming garden gnomes and Mrs. Weasly’s clock that tells where everyone is and what state of danger they may be in, we would just assume they lived in a messy, yes quirky, but not magical home. In many of Gail’s books, the way she describes things causes the level of awe and fantasy to shoot up! I love the castle in Fairest – the courts full of singing courtiers, the birds chirping in the alcoves of ceilings, the way everything seems to be singing. And the elaborate colors all around. In Two Princesses the Fairy’s palace is perfect, it is nestled on a mountain in the clouds and everything there is simply better than it is in Bamarre. You could also make your people the quirky ones – maybe the innkeeper has a collection of unicorn tusks hidden that no character knows about, but the reader does, these are the reason the food tastes good in the inn, the beds are soft, and people continue to stay over.

Katie W.: Another way to think about this is that magical places give you an excuse to put in the really cool/ridiculous ideas that would never fit in anywhere else. If you’re the list-making person, you could go through your old lists, find the most ridiculous things you thought of, and put them in. If you want a ceiling made of moss and a floor made of clouds, go for it. Humor and detailed descriptions are your best friends here.

Belle Adora, Thanks for the shoutout to my books!

I’m recovering from a broken bone in my foot right now (the bone didn’t move away from where it belongs, so it isn’t bad). My foot aches, and I have to wear a hot and awkward boot outside. Katie W., I would love a cloud floor!

I suggest approaching this from two directions: plot and setting.

Let’s think, for example, about the unicorn horns and the innkeeper—what’s the story that goes with them? They’re brilliantly suggestive of plot. As usual, I’d list possibilities:

  • The unicorns are still alive and defenseless.
  • The unicorns are still alive and they’re angry. They want them back, and horns aren’t their only weapon.
  • The innkeeper thinks they’re unicorn horns, but they’re really dragon’s teeth, which the dragon can control even when they aren’t in its mouth. It’s biding its time.
  • The innkeeper is mistaken about being the only one to know he has the horns. A rival innkeeper knows too and has a plan to get them.
  • The power of the horns isn’t only benign. The innkeeper, without realizing, is falling under their sway.

First prompt: Come up with three more possibilities.

What about the horns themselves?

  • Each horn has a holder. If the horn that makes the bed soft, for instance, is put in the holder for the one that makes the food good, the inn’s bedding will grow green mold after a day or two.
  • The horns are tiny, as were the unicorns.
  • The horns are filled with a green vapor that makes people think they’re bears (or something else). If a horn breaks, the vapor spreads and casts its spell far and wide.
  • When no one is around, the horns speak to each other in verse.
  • The horns change color depending on who’s looking at them. To the innkeeper, they’re blue streaked with orange.

Second prompt: Come up with three more possibilities.

Surprise, in my opinion, is the secret ingredient that wakes up everything in a story, including setting, plot, and character. An innkeeper with unicorn horns is surprising, and we can keep the surprises coming. I use lists to get there, because my brain wriggles and writhes when it has to keep coming up with possibilities, and eventually it starts burping out interesting ideas.

Let’s move on to the witches’ house. Well, what would be in there? Ordinary stuff probably: beds, bureaus, kitchen table, chairs, etc. What can we do with those, and what else can we toss in?

  • The witches grow hair in their flowerpots to practice hair raising.
  • All their cooking pots are small because they want a break from cauldrons when they’re not working.
  • Each pane of glass in their windows, to an outside onlooker, reveals a different interior.
  • The pillows whisper spells in its witch’s ears all night.
  • The kitchen utensils are sentient, and the knives have anger management problems.

The third prompt, of course, is to think of three more.

The approach here is that setting will be more significant and meaningful if it links to our plot. The setting elements that sing in Fairest would be less significant if this were a kingdom of bathtub merchants. When setting works with plot, both gain power.

One more prompt: Using at least one from each list above, including your own additions, write the story.

Have fun, and save what you write!

The End of the Road

On September 17, 2021, Christie V Powell wrote, Does anyone else struggle with writing the very end of a story? I’m fine if it’s a series and there are more books coming, but if I’m writing the end of a standalone or the end of a series, I have a really hard time focusing on the last chapter or so (the tail end of the climax and the resolution stuff). My brain has already written off this story as done and wants to move on to something new and interesting. I struggled on this with my standalone Mira’s Griffin, and some reviewers picked up on it. Now I’m facing the same problem with the end of my DreamRovers series. Any tips for staying focused on the story through the end?

I wrote this at the time: Here’s a thought: Your story is over for you, but it will still be clinging to your readers. What do you think they’ll want that will make them sigh with contentment?

Every book I write is Mount Everest. I want to scale it: figure it out, write it, revise in ecstasy, and depart to scout out my next mountain. I always want the current one to be DONE! For some reason, Ella Enchanted was the worst. So I’m with you.

If I remember right, Brandon Sanderson said that the problem of wanting to move on is worst in outliners. I’m only fractionally an outliner, but I still feel it. There may not be a solution; we may just have to endure. That said, I have some thoughts.

I just reread the final chapter of one of my childhood favorites, Anne of Green Gables. **Spoilers alert! Spoilers in italics. (If you’ve never read Anne, it’s a marvelous classic for kids.)** The beginning of the chapter, when Anne and the reader learn that Marilla (Anne’s adoptive mother) is in danger of losing her eyesight, and then Anne’s decision in response to the news had me crying–today, at age seventy-four. Not much further on, though, I perked up as romance rears its pretty head, and, shortly thereafter, the books ends. End of spoiler. As a child reader, I remembered the sadness, but I was delighted by the promise of love to come and that’s what stayed with me.

I also refreshed my memory of the ending of my other favorite, Peter Pan, but I didn’t reread it because I disliked it when I was little, and I still do. Ending aside, if you’ve never read Peter Pan, I recommend it highly—another kid-lit classic. **Spoilers alert!**  I think the novel ends tragically. If you’ve read it and remember, do you agree? Adults are set up in Peter Pan as dull and stodgy, utterly unlike their much livelier childhood selves, and yet Wendy, her brothers, and the Lost Boys choose that fate. Peter doesn’t, but he winds up tragically isolated, which he covers with bravado. Lover of romance that I am and was, I was angry with Barrie for ruining the ending of an almost perfect book.

If we’re writing to tell ourselves a story, we can ask ourselves what we want in the ending. What will satisfy us or the child reader who still lives inside us? Then the question becomes how we can provide it.

If we know who reads our stories, we can consider what will please them. What do they come to us for? Aside from our MC, which character interests them most? Can we fold that character into our ending? Will they want an epilogue to wrap everything up?

What will be fun for us to write? In Sparrows in the Wind (coming out in October), I threw something I didn’t need into the ending because I wanted it for my MC.

Most important, naturally, is that the ending solves the problem of the book, one way or another. As I see it, in a character-driven book, like Anne of Green Gables, which is a coming-of-age story, the problem belongs to the MC, in this case to Anne’s becoming a secure, well-rounded person. In a character-driven tragedy, like Hamlet, the problem is a character flaw, and the eponymous hero fails to solve it. In a plot-driven adventure, like The Lord of the Rings trilogy, the problem is the salvation of Middle Earth.

So the seeds of the ending are sown into the beginning, the problem that’s the reason for the story. The ending has to speak to that problem. I’m sure Christie V Powell’s stories do, but if our stories don’t, the ending will be hard to write.

I think this is the reason that the ending of Peter Pan fails, that it’s a book (I love) without a clear problem. There are problems. The Darlings, Wendy’s and her brothers’ parents, are heartbroken about the disappearance of their children (though they don’t try to find them). Captain Hook has a crocodile on his trail. But these problems aren’t the book’s problem. That Peter isn’t seriously connected to anyone might be the problem if he saw it that way. For most of the story, Wendy and her brothers are having a fine time and aren’t thinking about going home. Wendy plays at being an adult, and that pleases her. Near the end, Peter, in anger, frightens her into believing her parents have forgotten her and then there’s suspense about their getting away. But they do, and the Darlings are delighted to see them, and they grow into ordinary, boring adults.

So, these are ideas to consider when we write our endings:

  • Include what we look for in an ending.
  • If we know what our readers want, include those elements in our ending.
  • Give ourselves a gift and put in, if our story will accommodate it, something that’s fun to write.
  • Think about our ending—that our story will have to end—when we decide on its major problem.

Here are three prompts:

  • Write a version of Hamlet that focuses on the ghost story element. Keep it a tragedy or give it a happy ending.
  • Write a version of Peter Pan in which Peter realizes how alone and lonely he is, and that’s the problem of the story.
  • There’s no problem in “Sleeping Beauty.” Sure, the princess is going to sleep for a hundred years, but nothing will be changed when she wakes up, except there will be a nice prince kissing her in a sweet, non-creepy way. Give her a problem and write the story.

Have fun and save what you write!

Flowering in the Great Plot Dessert

On September 9, 2021, Brambles and Bees wrote, Does anyone have any recommendations on how to get ideas for plot and how to cultivate them until they grow into a fully formed story ready to write? I am currently struggling with re-planning because I didn’t find the plot I had given the story I’m working on interesting or detailed enough for my liking. The problem now is that I can’t seem to think of any ideas for the story. I have vague ideas for very random scenes in the story that I might not end up writing, but nothing is giving me inspiration.

A few of you had ideas.

Melissa Mead: That’s kinda how I work, actually. I just go ahead and write the random scenes, and they lead to more scenes. Usually. I hope.

Kit Kat Kitty: That’s something I struggle with too. In my current story, I’ve written two short chapters with the information about the characters and plot that I know. It’s helping me come up with things and understand them, so I can come up with a plot.

I also found something that helps is making lists, (something I actually started doing because of this blog) with the example I gave before, I have a list of about seventeen different ideas, and after writing the first few chapters (all of the ideas were rooted in the same concept more or less) there are probably fourteen ideas I can choose from, and a couple I’m leaning towards. This is helpful for me, knowing that I have options, and I feel like I have a sense of direction and what I’m writing isn’t pointless.

Christie V Powell: Resident plotter here!

The first thing I do is brainstorm a few ideas and get everything that came with the original idea written down. Then I write down a list of the major parts of the story (key event, first plot point, etc). There’s a graphic on this blog point that lists some different systems for naming those parts–mine is the “CVP method”.


Anyway, then I start breaking up the ideas from my brainstorm and figuring where they might go in the story. From there, it’s a little easier to figure out what goes in the gap.

For instance, the last story I outlined (a gender-flipped Sleeping Beauty) came with a list of conflicts (my princess vs. the villain, princess vs. her parents who don’t know about her forbidden abilities, and princess needing to find her best friend). So fitting them into the story structure framework helped me figure out what steps I needed to take to resolve each of those conflicts. For another story I’m working on, I had the beginning crystal clear in my mind and a vague idea of the rest of the story. So filling in the framework helped me figure out where the middle and end might go.

Kit Kat Kitty, I’m glad lists—which I push whenever I see the chance—have been helpful!

I think the only book I ever started that didn’t have some sort of borrowed structure was The Wish, and I wrote it over twenty years ago. (I started The Two Princesses of Bamarre with “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” in mind, but the fairy tale disintegrated as I started writing.) For The Wish, all I knew was that I wanted to write a book about popularity—about an unpopular girl who wanted more than anything else to be popular. Alas, I no longer have my notes, so I can’t reconstruct my process. I know that, early on, I decided she would become popular by having her wish granted by a witch, who comes into the story only once or twice after the initial gift.

The granting comes with an expiration date. Wilma wishes to be the most popular in her middle school, without remembering that she’s going to graduate in three weeks.

So the granting of the wish brings problems with it that my story has to grapple with in the middle. Wilma doesn’t think of her impending graduation for a while. First, she has to handle her popularity and become the kind of popular girl she’s going to be. Is that mean, as some of the popular kids used to be to her? Will she take revenge?

Then, when she does realize, what does she do?

The thing is that what-I-think-is-called the initiating incident (becoming popular) is bundled with problems for our plot. When we think about them, we think about scenes we can create to make them better, as when Wilma has a great conversation with extremely popular Ardis, and to make them worse, as when she brings her dog to a sleepover (and he pees at a bad moment in a bad place–on a sculpture).

Also locked up in the initiating incident is a seed for our ending. Will Wilma be popular after graduation? We have to decide if we’re writing a tragedy: Wilma is not popular, is not reconciled to being unpopular, and regrets the loss for years. Or an adventure or comedy: Wilma remains popular, or she wins a sense of proportion about popularity and has gained a stronger sense of self-respect.

We create scenes to bring her to the ending we want to give her.

I find a borrowed structure easier because the template suggests scenes as well as the problem and, sometimes, even the ending.

Let’s take “Rumpelstiltskin” as an example, which I go to often because I’d like to figure out all the kinks and write it.

The inciting incident, I think, is the miller telling the king that his daughter can weave straw into gold when he has no reason to believe this is true. The incident suggests scenes: in the throne room with the father, the king, and the terrified girl; the girl in the barn, dwarfed by mounds of hay, standing next to a rickety spinning wheel; the appearance of Rumpelstiltskin; etc.

The problem, I think, is the girl’s survival, and, if she lives, can she thrive?

Here again, we decide what kind of ending we want. Sad is easily achieved. In the fairy tale, she lives and saves her baby too, but what kind of life does she have, married to a man who was willing to off her? For adventure or comedy, we have to figure out a way for her to thrive.

We need scenes for this too. What’s the miller’s daughter’s daily life like? How does she approach her future? What does she think? Feel? Does Rumpelstiltskin stay on the scene after she guesses his name? What’s the deal with him—why is he in the story at all? All of these suggest scenes.

Sometimes, when I’m floundering, I reframe my story as a quest. That was the way I managed to write The Two Princesses of Bamarre out of the sea of mud it was stuck in. In this case, the miller’s daughter, whether she knows it or not, may be on a quest for happiness or for a good life for her baby.

Another way to plot is with a timeline. We have the initial problem and a deadline. If the problem isn’t solved by then, we have a tragedy. We create subordinate deadlines along the way. We fill in with scenes to reach them or fail to reach them. When I wrote my historical novel, A Ceiling Made of Eggshells, I used a timeline of actual events leading up to the expulsion of the Jews (in 1492) and, finally, the exodus from Spain.

But we don’t need historical events to do this. Story events will do. For example, our MC, Aggie, has to reach her widowed mother on the other side of the world, in time to prevent her from marrying Mr. Weaselham, whose villainy has been revealed to Aggie but not to her mother. We think of what can get in the way. We set up a timeline. We’re off!

So here you have a semi-pantser’s approach to plot. Brambles & Bees, how did it go for you?

Here are three prompts:

  • Write your own adaptation of “Rumpelstiltskin.” If it’s helpful, follow the method I suggest above.
  • Using a timeline, write the story of Aggie, Aggie’s deceived mother, and Mr. Weaselham.
  • In a world that’s something like the American West after the transcontinental railroad has just begun running, outlaws attack Aggie’s train and derail it in an inhospitable landscape. Write what happens. You can figure out a way for her to continue her journey, or you can turn it in a new direction.

Have fun and save what you write!


On August 14, 2021, Christie V Powell wrote, How do you decide when you’ve got two different routes that your story can take? Maybe you’ve written your list and you’ve got a couple of brilliant ideas, but they don’t work well together. Or maybe it’s an either-or question: should I kill this character or not? Should I combine these characters or not? Like, both options are valid and would make a decent story.

If it makes a difference, right now I’m trying to decide whether to add (gender swapped) Beauty’s father into the plot in the beginning or combine him with “Beauty”‘s army commander. The Beast part is pretty clear in my rough draft, but the father part needs work.

A back-and-forth ensued.

Melissa Mead: What would the father contribute to the story that no one else can?

Christie V Powell: Mainly it’s the connection to the fairy tale. Right now, I’m trying out combining him with the commander, who has a more important role. It changes “Beauty”s motivation a bit, but it also raises the stakes, so I’m hoping it will work.

Melissa Mead: Well, if the Disney version could leave out Belle’s sisters, I’d say you can be flexible.

I chimed in.  

Gail Carson Levine: Do you know the ending? Are you in the outlining stage?

Christie V Powell: I have a loose outline and a really messy rough draft, and now I’m trying to make it more presentable. So I know the basic building blocks, including the ending, but there are still details I haven’t figured out yet.

Gail Carson Levine: I’ve added your question to my list. Your approach is so much more logical than mine, I don’t know how much help I’ll be, but I’ll take a stab. By the time the question comes up, you can tell us what you wound up doing and how you approached it!

Since Christie V Powell asked the question eleven months ago, I looked on her Amazon page to see if I could see if a “Beauty and the Beast” retelling was there, but I couldn’t find it. What I did find, among many titles, was The Great Pasta Rhyme-Off by James G. Powell written either by her son or a very accomplished professor of limerickology, judging by the sample Amazon provides.

Seriously, Christie V Powell, I was charmed—and mighty pleased to see a photo of you doling out said pasta!

Anyway, please let us know if you finished the book and what you wound up doing.

When the question is simply whether to have two characters or one—a father and a commander, or the father is also the commander—I would go with option two.  Generally, I believe in character consolidation; one character is better than two. The reader doesn’t have to take another one on board when there may already be many.

But there are exceptions, like if the single character has to be in two places at once. Or we may want two to bring out different aspects of character. I’m not a fan of the father in the original fairy tale because he dumps the choice of which of them—he or Beauty—should be sacrificed to the Beast. The Beast hasn’t said he’d eat her, but her longevity doesn’t look good if she’s his captive. I don’t know what Christie V Powell has in mind, but indecisiveness doesn’t seem a likely personality trait for a commander.

When my story reaches a crossroad—or whenever I have to make almost any story decision—I write notes, which is one reason I’m such a slow writer. I ask, What if it goes this way? I write possibilities, lots of them if the idea is promising. That way? Different possibilities. Sometimes I reach a dead end quickly, which tells me to go another way.

What I’m looking for are surprises and enthusiasm (my own). It’s a good sign if a follow-on idea is unexpected. I’m convinced, and I set off—

Which doesn’t mean I won’t run into trouble later on. Since I’m mostly a pantser, I don’t anticipate trouble very well. Trouble occasions more notes, but I rarely reverse my earlier choice.

Let’s take a stab at our own gender-reversed B&B, in which we’ll give our MC the boy’s name Beau. He’s bookish and loves novels of manners and poets who write in rhymed couplets. If one of his books weighs more than five pounds, he staggers carrying it to his favorite chair by the fireplace. When his father comes home with his terrible news, Beau rises to the occasion, though he almost drops his mug of hot chocolate in the effort of standing up. Huzzah! Maybe an adventure will lead him to a new interest in swashbuckling stories! “I’ll go, Father.” He smiles bravely and gulps.

Say we go with one character for Beau’s father and the commander, who is in charge of the defense of the kingdom’s capital. When the Beast, an enormous lioness, offers him the choice of his own death or sacrificing his son, he thinks he could bump off the creature himself just by pulling the chandelier down on her, but he wants Beau to toughen up, and here’s the chance he’s been waiting for. This father isn’t indecisive at all! “Take my son,” he says. “You’ll love him.” Heh heh heh.

Now, say the father is just the father. By trade, he’s a merchant. The cargo he traded in before he became impoverished was rare books about botany. He and Beau are twigs on the same delicate tree. When the Beast offers him a chance to live, he grabs it instantly, in a grip that’s barely strong enough to squeeze a kitchen sponge.

But he loves his son. When a month passes and Beau doesn’t return or send word, he visits the commander, who is happy to take on the rescue.

At this point in my thinking, the father seems like dead (but light) weight. If the commander takes over we don’t need the father in the first place unless he has something to do later in our plot.

At this point I’d wonder what that might be. I’d think about how my story is going so far. What’s happening with Beau and the Beast? Is Beau accruing any swashbuckling skills? Probably not. Is he finding ways to sabotage the Beast or to make his captivity bearable? Is the Beast in love with him? Or is she disappointed and getting hungry?

How can the father worsen Beau’s situation or improve it? As usual, I’d make a list.

I don’t know how it would come out, but that would be my approach.

Here are three prompts:

  • Write the list to determine Beau’s father’s story fate. Depending on what you decide, write the story.
  • Write your own gender-switched fairy tale.
  • Write “Beauty and the Beast” from the father’s POV.

Have fun and save what you write!


On July 27, 2021, i  writing wrote, Quick question about clichés—or one in particular—the MC of my middle-grade novel meets her love interest by literally crashing into him. They both fall over, she gets a look at him, stammers her way through an apology, and walks off in a pleasantly surprised daze. Is this a super-cliche way for two love interests to meet?

Christie V Powell answered with this: It’s certainly a well used trope, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s clichéd. You can find a way to use it, especially if you play with it a bit.

This is TVTropes’ page for “Playing with Crash Into Hello”, which defines different ways that the trope could be used: https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/PlayingWith/CrashIntoHello.

I love Christie V Powell’s link. My fav is the wallet one.

And I agree with her all the way. Whether a trope will be tired or not depends on the way it’s handled. Here’s a super early prompt: Read the ones on the link and then list five other ways to fool with the collision-meets-cute romcom starter.

One way we can use a trope—any trope—in a way that will boost its originality and lower its profile is to make it do more than one thing in our story.

Character development: Matt bumps into Sara. She apologizes. He says, “Whatever.” With great economy, we’ve revealed a bit of the characters of each of them. Our plot gets a boost too, because, if these two are going to fall for each other, we sure have a story arc to think about.

To develop our characters, we consider what we want this encounter to reveal about them. How can we make the crash show them at their best, their worst, or their most typical?

To develop our plot: Sara is a werewolf whose shifts are set off by the unexpected. When Matt bumps into her, she begins to transform.

Here, we use the meet-cute to reveal what we know about our story.

To develop our setting: Matt has been wandering through the minotaur’s labyrinth for days. Sound travels weirdly in here. Several times, the minotaur has almost been upon him before he heard its booming steps. Now, he thinks he hears lighter—human?—footfalls, but where? Oof!

Here, in the lead-up to the collision, the reader learns about the quality of sound in the labyrinth.

This is fun!

In each of these, readers may not even notice that this is a meet-cute-by-collision device at all.

But if I ask myself whether it’s best to avoid tropes entirely so we don’t need to think of workarounds to make them original, I’m not sure. The whole meet-cute thing is a trope too, but how many romances start by two people reading Kierkegaard in a Philosophy class? (As you may have read somewhere because it’s a good (true) story, David and I had a cute—sort of—moment when he set his hair on fire during our first date.)

Tropes become tropes by being repeated, and they’re repeated because they’re good. They may even go back to a primordial story shape that satisfies humans like nothing else. We complicate them to bring in originality, and the complications are part of the plot process. A story arc could even be described as a pattern of rising complexity—up, up, up—‘til we reach the crisis, and then lowering—down, down, down—until what’s left comes into sharp focus in the resolution. I don’t know if we can avoid tropes—so why worry?

However, if we want to try, we can start to think, as we should anyway, about the characters of the two. What’s going on in their lives? What are the conflicts, the trajectory of the story they’re already on that romance hasn’t yet entered?

Let’s suppose that Sara joined the debate team at her high school in hopes of reducing her terror at public speaking. Matt uses the auditorium to study because his friends don’t go there, and he can tune out whatever is going on onstage. He’s not doing well in his European History class because he can’t keep straight all the little countries and the wars and the dates.

To Sara, Matt is just there during her debate practice, a helpful presence because she can see he’s oblivious to whatever she says and how badly she says it. He’s not aware of her at all. His family is very invested in his education. An F will put a serious dent in their hopes for him and his hopes for himself. Both run in different crowds, and their friendships bring in other conflict that are part of the story. The reader cares about the two characters but doesn’t see a connection between them, which when it comes, is gradual. They stand next to each other in the cafeteria line in a moment when their friends aren’t around. Matt, who isn’t comfortable with silence, tells her he likes the pea soup. She nods. And so on. Their brief contacts are always pleasant. When he flunks his History midterm, he sees her at the school lockers and says something, just because she seems nice. That’s the meet-not-especially-cute, but it grows from there.

A great example of no trope at all is in Jane Austen’s Emma, because the eponymous heroine has known the future love interest her whole life. There is no meeting.

Here are four prompts based on the scenarios above, plus one that isn’t:

  • Matt bumps into Sara. She apologizes. He says, “Whatever.” Write the scene that follows and the whole romance, if you like.
  • Write this one: Sara is a werewolf whose shifts are set off by the unexpected. When Matt bumps into her, she begins to transform.
  • And/or this one: Matt has been wandering through the minotaur’s labyrinth for days. Sound travels weirdly in here. Several times, the minotaur has almost been upon him before he heard its booming steps. Now, he thinks he hears lighter—human?—footfalls, but where? Oof!
  • Or the non-trope one of the debate-anxious Sara and the history-challenged Matt.
  • Your MC meets the villain of your story by colliding with her. Write the scene. If you like, continue to write the whole tale.

Have fun, and save what you write!