Who me? Not I!

On February 18, 2019, ashes to ask wrote, I have a problem. A big one.

I have been writing stories for years now, but I’m stuck in a rut of what I nicknamed “Same Character Syndrome.” I’ve made countless characters, and at first they seem different— some are blonde, brunette, or red-headed, they all have different ethnicities, etc. The thing is, though, they are all teen girls who are slightly awkward nerds. They all have the same speech mannerisms, and they like to look pretty. I’ve tried to make other MCs, but they end up degenerating into the same ol’ mold that all my MCs are. I’ve been thinking, and I think it’s because they are all embodiments of me, the author. It’s terrifying for me to realize that I am the soul inside these people whom I have thought so different. It’s like I wrote up a cloning machine, and they all come out of it with different faces and backstories, but the same stuff inside.

How do I fix this?

Suggestions poured in.

Christie V Powell: What if, just for a training exercise, you tried writing a character based on someone else you know well? I did that a lot in high school. I thought it was funny, looking back, that I had two characters in different stories that were based on the same person, but they were totally different characters. One was a peacemaker who tried to smooth things over for characters who didn’t get along, and the other was a major source of conflict for my main character. I’m not sure if that was the mystical character evolution that writers talk about, or just my changing relationship with the person!

You could also try using different characteristics of yourself for different characters. Real people are contractions, much more so than characters. In one of my WIPs, I gave all three POV characters one of my flaws (though exaggerated, I hope). One of them lives in fantasy/dreams and doesn’t handle reality well. Another has goals that are more realistic, but she tries to make them come true without always considering the work and responsibility involved. The third struggles with guilt over something careless he did that had terrible consequences. He’s also slightly based on a historical main character, for his physical/outer descriptions.

Melissa Mead: Have you ever, just for fun, tried making up a character who’s the total opposite of you? Or a different gender?

I suspect that it’ll help that you can identity ways that your characters are like you. Ex, if you catch a character automatically obeying a rule, you can come up with a compelling reason for them to break it.

Song4myKing: A friend once told me that she felt the characters were stronger when men wrote about women and women wrote about men. She said it worked that way for herself, because she had to think harder when writing a man’s perspective. She couldn’t just rely on her own ordinary patterns of thinking, and assume her readers understood.

Kit Kat Kitty: I find it helpful to read books or watch shows that focus on one or more characters that are different from the characters you would normally write. (Especially if these different characters interact with each other) This has helped me so much with coming up with different characters. And it’s not just how they look, it’s how they act or feel or what they believe. And although this has already been said, writing characters of the opposite gender really helps if you’re trying to write characters different from you.

These are great!

I often wonder this about questions that come in, and I don’t mean to put down the question or the questioner. It comes up because we writers can be so unsure of ourselves and so ready to turn our criticism on ourselves. Here’s the question: Is this true? Are ashes to ask’s MCs really clones of one another?

When we find ourselves making this kind of judgment, it’s worth showing our work to someone else to be sure. In this case, ashes to ask would need to show at least two stories to this other reader, who doesn’t have to be a writer, just someone who loves to read and loves stories and, above all, isn’t mean. If the readers don’t see the similarities, we may be able to drop this worry.

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s assume that ashes to ask’s assessment is correct and all her MCs are similar and very much like her. Ashes to ask also says that they start out different but degenerate into sameness. What to do?

Degeneration means there was a process that could be halted. I generally recommend that we write an entire story before revising, but in this case revising as we go along may be helpful. Before we start a day’s writing we can look over the work of the day before. If our MC says something that is just what we’d say in those circumstances, we can LIST! other possible things she might say–or think or do. When we plug in new lines of dialogue or thought or new actions, our MC will take shape.

I like Christie V Powell’s idea of basing an MC on someone you know. When it’s time for this MC to speak or think or do or feel, we can decide how that actual person would react. One of my favorite of my prompts in Writing Magic is to think of two people we know who aren’t romantically involved with each other. The next step is to imagine that they’re forced to marry. Doesn’t matter how old they are. We can adjust that. The final step is to write their dinner table conversation on their first anniversary. The fun is that these people, finding themselves in an unexpected (to say the least) situation, will still be themselves, will speak as they would, will adjust to circumstances as they would.

Ditto to Melissa Mead’s suggestions about writing a main character who’s either our opposite in terms of personality or a different gender.

Or a different species or kind of creature entirely.

My characters are plot-driven. I come up with MCs who will both be challenged by what I’m going to throw at them and able to survive whatever it is. Most of my characters are much braver than I am, for example. In The Two Princesses of Bamarre I made up a shy heroine with reserves of courage. I needed her to be shy and not to want the quest that she enters into. By contrast, I’m not very shy and I don’t know if I have reserves of courage. I hope if I need them they’ll be there!

So, it’s worth thinking in the planning stage about what kind of characters we need to make our plot happen. If we’re writing a romcom, for example, we might think about the perspective on love that our MC needs to have for our particular romance to have many bumps but come to a happy conclusion.

My favorite example of a story in need of a character comes from the fairy tale, “The Princess on the Pea.” What kind of character might feel a pea through all those mattresses? I think there’s more than one answer, but we need to consider the question going in. (Or she might not feel the pea, but she has to contrive to pass the test.)

Like real people, our fictional characters are defined by what they do, say, think, and feel–most significantly by what they do. Our plot is shaped by what they and other characters do. If ashes to ask revises as she–or he or they–goes along, the changes she makes to her MC will affect her plot, and she’ll need to adjust.

We need our plot and our MC to work together. Let’s think about some situations. Our MC becomes embroiled in a secret society, but once in, she gradually realizes that its aims are malevolent and that it mistreats its members. Her goal becomes to undermine and destroy the society and to save the innocents in it. What sort of MC should we design who may succeed in the end but who will have a lot of trouble along the way, whose nature is both aligned and misaligned with her mission?

Or, our plot is about colonizing a newly discovered region, empty of humans but supporting herds of intelligent unicorns who don’t know what to make of the newcomers and are reluctant to share their place. The colonizers are fleeing their home country or kingdom because of their beliefs, whatever they are. Going back isn’t an option. Who can be our MC for this?

Or, our plot takes place in a time of famine. Our MC is the oldest child in a poor family struggling to survive. Who will our MC be, who will both fail and succeed in helping?

Or, in this time of famine, our MC is upper class and has plenty to eat. What kind of MC would involve herself with the starving and would both fail and succeed in helping?

I say fail and succeed because we need an MC for whom the task will be particularly difficult, to create tension.

To make our MC different from ourselves, we can ask how we would go about these challenges and then LIST! other possible ways and the traits necessary to carry them out.

Having said all this, however, let’s go in the opposite direction. Suppose we’re stuck with one MC. No matter what we do, we keep writing the same character again and again. All is not lost–even if this character is us in disguise. We know ourselves, our complexity. We come alive on the page. It can be a good thing. We may have invented a character, or a cast of characters, who can sustain us from book to book. Think mystery series! Think fantasy series! Think series in general!

Here are five prompts, which you probably saw coming:

∙ Try my exercise from Writing Magic.

∙ Write the scene in the secret society situation when our MC realizes that the organizations goals are not what she or he thought. For extra credit, make the MC not be your gender.

∙ Write the first contact between the humans and the unicorns. Make your MC blunder terribly. For extra-extra credit, switch it up and make her be one of the unicorns.

∙ In the famine situation, your MC’s older sister is close to death from starvation. Write a scene in which he attempts to find food and fails.

∙ In the famine situation, your wealthy MC happens upon the starving sister. Write the scene in which she initially fails to help.

Have fun and save what you write!

Why Dunnit

Two events to tell you about before the post:

On Saturday, May 18th, from 12:00 until 4:00, I’ll be signing books at the Millbrook Literary Festival, held at the Millbrook Public Library, 3 Friendly Lane, Millbrook, NY. From 1:30 to 2:30, I’ll be on a panel about novelizing fairy tales.

This is a time change: The next day, Sunday, May 19th, at 4:00 (not 2:00), I’ll be among a group of poets reading at Byrd’s Books, 178 Greenwood Avenue, Bethel, CT. There will be time before or after to chat.

Hope you can make one (or both!) of these!

On February 14, 2019, Writing Ballerina wrote, I have a great plot; great conflict; great evil scheme — but why on earth is the bad guy doing what he’s doing??? I have trouble coming up with motives. I find an evil plan, then try to shift around the pieces of my story to find a motive that makes sense, but I just end up expounding on the plan — making it more “elegant” (to refer to A Tale of Two Castles) — or making a new one, but I still don’t have a motive. For example, in my WIP, there’s this king that turns out to be evil and basically wants to kill off the whole kingdom — but why??? The best I can come up with is that he’s bored with royalty, but who’s that cold that they would kill thousands of people because they don’t like their job?? Help!

Thanks for the shout-out to A Tale of Two Castles!

Villains always seem to fascinate us on the blog. What does this say about us? What is our motive? Mrrah ha ha!

Lots of you weighed in.

viola03: Maybe this evil king’s motive could be that no one wanted him to be king (or thought he had what it takes or something), and now he wants revenge. Or maybe he’s an impostor from an enemy kingdom which wants to annihilate the other kingdom.

Writing Ballerina loved this but still wanted her general question considered.

K. R. Garcia: For motives, I find you have to start with the character. It helps me to find something painful in a character’s past that they either work to improve for the benefit of others (hero) or improve for the worse for others (villain). Here are a few common motives for villains: revenge (my favorite) is a fun one because the cause can be revealed as a twist. Thirst for power can be done very well and make terrifying villains. Stigma or vendetta against a group or population (for example, an evil wizard who despises muggles) can make for a fascinating radical/political kind of villain. In real life, motives are complex, so it’s a good idea for a character to have multiple motives. For example, my WIP’s villain wants revenge on another character as well as power.

Jenalyn Barton: A lot of time motive stems from a character’s background. For example, if the bad guy is a former slave who was treated poorly by the royals, he probably wants to get rid of them out of a desire for revenge. If he was once one of the royals who was banished for refusing to conform to society’s expectations of him, perhaps he desires to change society to fit his lifestyle and wants to expose all the corruption that he knew went on behind the scenes. Perhaps he was bullied and treated poorly as a child and ends up taking out all of his pent-up aggression on his subjects. The possibilities are endless! If you figure out his background, his own personal story in which he thinks of himself as the protagonist, you may find out his hidden motive.

Christie V Powell: I’ve recently discovered the ennegram personality system, which is kind of like Meyer’s Briggs if you know that one. They give a primary want and motivation for each personality type, as well as what a ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’ person looks like. I find it really useful for motivations, especially for villains. Here’s the long version: https://www.enneagraminstitute.com/type-descriptions/
Here’s a quick break down:
Type 1: Idealistic reformer. Basic Desire: To be good. Basic Fear: To be evil.
This is actually my main villain’s type. They believe that the world is black and white and they are motivated to shape the world into the way it should be–in a villain’s case, through inappropriate means.
Type 2: Caring Helper. Basic Desire: to be loved Basic Fear: to be unwanted.
Type 3: Driven Achiever. Basic Desire: Success. Basic Fear: to be worthless.
My love interest and one of my villains both have this type. They struggle to be authentic and can be manipulative. in order to appear successful.
Type 4: Artistic Individualist. Basic Desire: To be themselves. Basic Fear: To be insignificant.
Type 5: Intelligent intellectual. Basic Desire: To be competent. Basic Fear: To be helpless.
Type 6: Dedicated Loyalist. Basic Desire: Security. Basic Fear: Being unsupported.
Type 7: Fun Enthusiast. Basic Desire: To have basic needs fulfilled. Basic Fear: Deprivation and Pain.
Type 8: Dominating Challenger. Basic Desire: Freedom. Basic Fear: Being controlled by others.
Type 9: Easy-going Peacemaker. Basic Desire: Peace of mind. Basic Fear: Conflict and Loss.
It’s really hard to write a type 9 villain because when ‘unhealthy’, they tend to disassociate from the world.

Melissa Mead: A type 9 villain would probably be clingy and try to make everyone conflict-free, even if it meant, say, lobotomizing them. All for the greater goal of Peace, of course.

Kyryiann: When I was struggling with this problem in my WIP, I decided to learn more about my villain. With me, a lot of brainstorming happens when I’m just thinking about the story. I had already decided that the villain was brothers with one of the main protagonists, a king, so I was trying to figure out why he was trying to destroy everything his brother loved.
The king’s wife is an important character, and as I was thinking about the three of them, I figured that she would have come in contact with the villain. The woman had spent some time with the king and his brother because her father wanted to arrange an alliance with their two kingdoms. She would have spent time with each brother individually.
That’s when it hit me: what if the villain had fallen in love with the woman, but she chose his brother instead?
This put a whole new spin on the plot. I eventually decided that the villain thought that his brother had forced the woman to choose him instead of the villain.
That’s basically a step-by-step process that I go through for most of my novels.

I’m struck by the potential for tragedy as well as for villainy in Christie V Powell’s list. Some of those basic fears are very sad and also touching–worthlessness, insignificance, helplessness, etc. A villain may become villainous because the only other option she sees is her deepest fear, as in: At least if I kill everyone in the castle, no matter what happens, I’ll be famous. I won’t be insignificant. Shakespeare in King Lear, if I remember right, rolls both the villainy and the tragedy together. Lear fears being unloved, and everything follows from that.

We don’t always need motive for a villain. I’ve used this example before: Sherlock Holmes’s adversary, Moriarty, the great criminal mind. I don’t think Arthur Conan Doyle ever gives him a motive. We can intuit a motive, though–or maybe Doyle suggests one or two indirectly: greed and the challenge of getting away with his crimes–being smarter than the agents of the law.

Sometimes we can deduce a motive in the results. This happens a lot in murder mysteries. Somebody has been killed, and the detective hero works backwards to find out why, how, and who. The why is the motive. At first our sleuth suspects the heirs to the fortune of the victim. Then she comes to find out that the dead man was funding civil rights lawyers in a totalitarian state. Agents of the state come under suspicion, too. There are more surprises, fresh suspects. The motive isn’t discovered until the murderer is identified. In this case, we, the writers, have to know the victim as well or better than we know the perp.

Some real life villains, like the Unabomber, for instance, write manifestos that go on for hundreds of pages and attempt to justify their acts. In the Unabomber’s case, he was opposed to technology and expected to start a revolution. That was his motive, though lots of people are Luddites without being violent.

So how do we get from motive to action? I think expert opinion is divided about whether one has to have some sort of psychological disability to carry out terrible acts. I don’t know the answer to that, but it’s worth thinking about as we craft our villain. Is a compulsion operating? Now I’m thinking about Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Is Mr. Hyde capable of not being evil? We get into predestination and free will. This is deep!

We can decide one way for a certain story and another way for another. In one, our villain’s motive can rise out of his compulsions. She doesn’t feel safe unless she’s in control, so she’s controlling. Another can feel dead inside. He needs to inflict pain in order to come to life. Eek! With this kind of reason for villainy, we don’t need much more in the way of motive. Just pity the poor person who crosses this villain’s path at the wrong moment.

We don’t have to go far from here to the question of evil. Terrible things happen to people in fiction and real life. Is there evil? What’s its nature? How does it operate in our story? In our villain?

Writing Ballerina liked Viola03’s impostor suggestion because it helped her plotting. So we can think about the kind of villain who will send our plot zooming in the right direction. In the fairy tale “Rapunzel,” for example, we need a witch who wants a child and then, later, wants to imprison her in a tower. In the fairy tale, her actions are unmotivated. She just does what she does. But for the story to work in a longer adaptation, her motives are key to everything. Who would want a child and than want to jail her? We don’t necessarily need a back story. Basic character will do. She may love babies and hate children, for example.

In my loosely related version, Lady Klausine takes Perry because she wants a child, but she isn’t the one to shut Perry up in the tower. That’s her husband, Lord Tove, whose motive is extreme prejudice. So I divided the two villainous acts (and the reader comes to sympathize, if not excuse, Lady Klausine).

In Donna Jo Napoli’s Zel, the witch’s motives are entirely different-fascinating and unexpected.

So a single fairy tale plot can support multiple motives. To come to the one that we want to work with, we can consider the world of our story and the values of the people in it. We can think about the challenges this villain with his motive will present for our MC. We can make a list! Like this:

Smart villain
Bumbling villain
Resentful
World view that makes him act as he does

And so on. We can elaborate on the ones that appeal to us and see how they will affect our plot.

Fun can come into it. What kind of villain with what kind of motives will we enjoy writing? Because villains are often a delight to write. More than any other character, our villains give us permission to write over the top. They are generally an extreme, so we can be wild writing about them.

Here are three prompts:

∙ The parents in “Hansel and Gretel” abandon their children in the forest. The reader is told that this is because the family doesn’t have enough food, and that the mom is more willing than her husband to leave them. But the witch is cast as the major villain. Come on! Who would abandon children in a forest or anywhere else? Who would go along with such a plan? The parents are villains! What’s their motive? Write a scene or the whole story, revealing the real motive.

∙ Your world is a dystopian bureaucracy with a jillion departments . Your villain is the Minister of the Department of Transportation, whatever kind of transportation is used in this world. And he, deviously, makes transportation a misery for everyone. Goods are late getting where they’re going. People’s commute quadruples in length. The tiniest aspect of everyone’s life in this world is disrupted. Write a scene in which you show the reader how he operates, and why.

∙ The sirens of Greek mythology sing sailors to their death. Pick one and make her the villain of your story. Invent her motive and write a scene or the whole story.

Have fun, and save what you write!

The Idea Garden

Reminder: I’ll be at the Westchester Children’s Book Festival on May 5th. Details here on the website.

On January 31, 2019, Ainsley wrote, I was wondering about story ideas (most asked question ever) and how you develop them into books.

Two of you responded expansively.

Jenalyn Barton: Observation is key! Carry around a small notebook and write things you notice that interest you. They don’t have to be full-blown ideas yet–that comes later. Here are some examples from my own notebook:

4/13/13 I wrote: “Impression: ‘stately mountains adorned with powdered wigs & rich white furs’”
5/26/13 I wrote: “Yesterday while I was waiting to pick [husband] up from work, I noticed that the power lines overhead had an audible buzz, almost like big bees or something similar.”
6/4/13 I wrote: “Character Trait: [Great Aunt] is convinced that planes are dropping pollutants/chemicals on us, & you can tell by the line of smoke a plane makes in the sky.”
12/28/13 I wrote: “Lies spew out of their mouths like vomit.”
7/4/14 I wrote: “Observation: You can sometimes see footprints in the grass when someone has been there recently”
9/21/14 I wrote: “Image: Clouds wrapped around mountains like luxurious furs.”
Etc.

Later you can take an observation or two and try to combine them into an idea for a story. My current WIP, “Goldwater,” came from combining three observations together. One came from when I took a plane to Chicago and noticed that the light of the sunset reflecting off the rivers looked like someone had drizzled liquid gold over the land. One came from the song “I set fire to the rain,” and the last one came from a character in an anime with the nickname “Thunder Beast.” I combined the three together to come up with the concept for my story. The concept was that a mythical Lightning Beast, thought to keep the world’s magic in balance, dies and contaminates all the rivers with its golden blood, causing magical phenomena and natural disasters, though no one knows yet what is causing it. But my story still needed the main character, so I came up with the idea of a young mother who is devastated when her toddler son dies in a magical natural disaster and travels to find the Lightning Beast to demand that it bring her son back. The story then began to take on a life of its own.

Of course, not all stories start this way. It’s different not only for each writer but also for each individual story a writer is working on. But learning to pay attention to your surroundings is the best way to start. Orson Scott Card said, “Everybody walks past a thousand story ideas every day. The good writers are the ones who see five or six of them.” Learn to pay attention, write down observations, and ask questions, and you’re on the right track.

Melissa Mead: If it helps, here are some things that came together to become “Malak’s Book.” (And that show how long this book was stewing in my head!)

The first place to publish my stories was a magazine called The First Line, where all the stories in an issue start with the same line. Once the line was “Mamma has always had a love for other people’s possessions.”

TFL likes creative interpretations of the line, so I wrote a story where the “possessions” were the demonic kind, and the narrator was “Mamma’s” half-demon son. It was a fun idea, but the story got rejected. It needed something more.

A while later, I was watching The Crocodile Hunter. Steve Irwin was holding up a big black snake with a bulge in its middle and saying “This is a happy snake. He’s warm, he’s got a full belly…”

Right after that was Iron Chef America. Somebody had made lamb sashimi. I looked at that pink blob of raw meat quivering on a hunk of rock salt and thought “Who’d want to eat that?”
:pause:
“I’ll bet that snake would like it.”
Things started clicking together, and that generic half-demon became Malak, half serpent-demon, who just wants to gorge himself with raw meat, then find someplace cozy to sleep it off, only the demon-hunters are out there…

(Bonus TV moment: If anybody’s a Doctor Who fan and saw the episode The Girl in the Fireplace, at the moment when little Reinette asks “What do monsters have nightmares about?” and David Tennant’s Doctor turns from fighting them off and says “Me!” I literally shouted “That’s Malak!” That fierce chivalry and absolute determination to keep anyone from harming that little girl- That’s my Demonboy. Plus DT looks PERFECT for the character, if he were to wear an alligator costume on the bottom.)

So, ideas come in all sorts of ways, and both Jenalyn Barton and Melissa Mead find that serendipity is a big factor. If Jenalyn Barton’s flight had been at a different time, if she didn’t know that particular song, if she hadn’t seen the anime, her story idea wouldn’t have taken shape the way it did. And for Melissa Mead, no First-Line prompt, no Crocodile Hunter, no Iron Chef America–no book about Malak.

But–and this is important–both of them would have produced something else. Because they were receptive, open for ideas.

I’d call that the number one element in idea development: receptivity. Writers always have an eye out for ideas.

Notice that neither one of them judged her ideas. Jenalyn Barton didn’t say to herself, You can’t find a story in clouds– they’re just water vapor. Melissa Mead didn’t think, Snakes are cliche.

Nothing kills what might be a fertile idea deader than negativity.

(And nothing else as effectively makes writing a hard, onerous slog.)

So, element two is no judgment.

The fodder for our ideas is various. Jenalyn Barker mentions landscape, a song, anime. Melissa Mead talks about a prompt, like The First Line provides, and TV shows.

In case it’s escaped anyone’s attention, an excellent source of prompts is THIS BLOG–as well as my books, Writing Magic and Writer to Writer. And I’ll repeat, because uncertainty about this crops up fairly often: You are free to use my prompts, the ones you find here or in my books. They’re meant to be used. You won’t be infringing on my copyright.

I tend to go to fairy tales, myths, and history for ideas. The inspiration for my novel Ever came from the story of Jephtha and his daughter in the Bible. I turn these sources over and over in my mind and squeeze them and poke and prod–sometimes for years–until something I can use takes shape.

Even then, the whole story never comes to me fully formed, like Athena from Zeus’s head. I get glimmers, on the basis of which I brainstorm, write notes, make lists. Eventually, I discover a character or two and a sense of the end of my story.

More notes and lists and a beginning comes. I start writing.

Naturally, I need many more ideas to get through a first draft, so I write notes and lists again. If a story is giving me trouble, my notes may be longer than the story itself. No matter what point I’ve reached, I still have to be receptive and nonjudgmental.

Notice how we describe getting ideas: we get them; they come to us; we have a eureka moment–as if the air is full of invisible ideas, the size of midges, and they fly in if we leave even a chink open–if we’re receptive.

This is how it feels. Ideas arrive. I don’t think it’s a deliberate process. If we’re receptive, our subconscious sends ideas. That’s why it feels so delightful. One moment we have nothing, and the next, something. We seem to have done nothing.

There are things, though, that we can do to prime the pump. An activity that doesn’t call for words or much thought, like walking or peeling potatoes, can free our minds. It’s a two-step process. We think obsessively about our project or just our desire for an idea. We may feel hopeless because nothing is coming. Then we let it go to take a walk or a shower, and–bingo–an idea shows up. A midge has flown in.

These idea midges are only for us. My midge won’t do much for you. In its DNA is our complete biography. An idea appeals to us because it’s made for us. It works because we went to the circus when we were seven, because we like salmon-and-peanut-butter sandwiches on whole wheat bread, because humid air doesn’t bother us. And so on. We’re the only one who will know what to do with the idea when it shows up.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Melissa Mead has written about a half-demon. Try writing about a half-fairy-half-gnome. Brainstorm about what such a creature would be like, what it might want more than anything else, what would be challenging for him or her. Write a scene or the whole story.

∙ Write or type “Once upon a time” at the top of a sheet of paper or screen. Write ten things that might follow. Take a walk. Write ten more.

∙ Think about the most complicated person you know. Put your feelings about this person to the side and think of circumstances that would be difficult for her. Imagine a time period that she could fit into. Write a scene for her in those circumstances and time period.

Have fun, and save what you write!

The Retell

Just to let you know in case you can come, I’ll be signing books at the Westchester Children’s Book Festival at Mohawk Day Camp in White Plains, New York, on May 5th. I’ll be there from 10:00 AM to 3:00 PM, and I’ll have time to chat. I’d love to see you!

On January 10, 2019, Emily F. wrote, I’ve been working on a retelling of the Mulan legend. What I’ve been wondering is, how far can you take a story from its origins before it stops being a retelling? For example, would you consider it to be a retelling of Mulan if it’s not set in China? I was reading book reviews of another Mulan story, and the reviewers seemed generally unhappy with the fact that the author took the story out of China. And that’s only one example of a way I’m deviating from the original legend…

Any thoughts on what makes for a good retelling?

Christie V Powell wrote back, Do you feel the need to label it as a retelling? If not, you can just write the story you want to write, and if people notice the similarity, it’ll be a fun bonus for them. Most retellings that I’ve seen don’t label themselves as such. Disney added a tiny “inspired by The Snow Queen” in the credits of “Frozen,” because the story was so different.

One of my favorite books when I was little (I have no idea what the title was) was a retelling of The Arabian Nights in a Native American setting, incorporating actual or made-up Native American folk tales. This was about sixty years ago. I suspect the tales weren’t true to the culture, but I don’t know. I hope they weren’t actually offensive. Anyway, in my ignorance, I loved it. If a thousand reviewers had been miffed about the transplant from one society to another, I wouldn’t have cared. And I liked very much that I had the inside dope that this was a transformed Arabian Nights. I enjoyed making the connection.

I agree with Christie V Powell that you don’t have to call your creative work a retelling. And, going the other way, I think, no matter how far you stray, you can call it such if you want to. Ella Enchanted and some of my retellings in The Princess Tales are pretty faithful to classic versions. But in other of my fairy-tale based books, like A Tale of Two Castles and Ogre Enchanted, the connection is pretty tenuous. I don’t think I did in A Tale of Two Castles, but in Ogre Enchanted, I cite the source, the fairy tale, “The False Prince and the True, on the copyright page. And I do the same in all the Princess Tales. My hope is that kids who see the citation will be moved to read the originals. Then they can have two pleasurable reading experiences. They can notice the differences between the stories and ponder why I made the changes I did.

Is a story still “Beauty and the Beast” if the beast is a wasp, and when he’s transformed he turns into a sheep with golden fleece? If we think it is–if the fairy tale inspired us–and we want to claim a connection, no one has the right to say we can’t.

Critics’ opinions vary about everything. I would advise that we not dwell on negative judgments of another author’s work and certainly not apply them to our own. Even this particular reviewer might have a different opinion about our story. Some critics might even like the variety that came with the change of location and whatever else.

Really, when we write, we have to please only ourselves. Later, after we’ve revised more than once, we may have to please an editor and then a copy editor. No one else. Critics are on their own. Even readers are.

But the wonderful thing is that if we please ourselves, if our story is true to our own ideas, then readers, and sometimes critics, will find the truth in it and be pleased, too.

Having said all this, however, I wouldn’t make Mulan the title of my story. In the text, I might not even mention the name Mulan except on the copyright page or in an afterword, because the mention might send the reader out of the story.

As for what makes a good retelling, hmm…

I love it when I find a new way in my own work to look at a fairy tale and when another author shows me a new way. Donna Jo Napoli, for example, always does this. Her novel, The Magic Circle, tells the tragic-but-triumphant story of the witch in “Hansel and Gretel,” and her Zel, among other things, explains the witch in “Rapunzel.” Beast is “Beauty and the Beast” from the beast’s POV (as is my Ogre Enchanted, sort of, but in an entirely different way). My favorite of her books that I’ve read is the lighthearted and endearing Prince of the Pond, a retelling of “The Frog Prince.”

I also love a straight retelling that honors the original, like Robin McKinley’s Beauty, a retelling of “Beauty and the Beast,” which set me to writing Ella Enchanted. Beauty tells its story in beautiful language. The atmosphere enfolds me, and she treats her characters with great sympathy. Also, another important feature in a retelling: Robin McKinley brings the world to life.

I appreciate when an author finds a surprising way into a story, as Susan Fletcher does in Shadow Spinner, in which she tackles the story that frames the tales in The Arabian Nights. I had wanted to do the same, but I got stuck. I couldn’t figure out how to make the sultan sympathetic, because he kills a series of young women, but Susan Fletcher does it by stepping back–her MC is a young girl with a limp, who hunts for stories when Shahrazad runs out.

And I’m delighted when a retelling deals with the wrongness in a tale. I can’t find it online, and I don’t own it, but a picture book exists that reveals that the real hero of “Rumpelstiltskin” is the eponymous dwarf. He saves the miller’s daughter’s life three times, and he makes sure, I think, that she discovers his name. Recognition has been a long time coming!

There are other fairy tales out there that need attention! Greek myths, too! Here are three prompts based on them:

∙ Explain the miller in “Rumpelstiltskin.” Write a scene that shows why he boasts to the king that his daughter can turn straw into gold. Go on to explain why the king makes death the punishment if she fails. If you like, make him sympathetic–a tall order, in my opinion. Write another scene in which the miller’s daughter does more than wring her hands, in which she actually accomplishes something.

∙ Before you read Donna Jo Napoli’s version, write the backstory of the witch in “Hansel and Gretel.”

∙ Retell “Sleeping Beauty,” but put it in the modern world, no more than three miles from where you live.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Happily Ever After–Or Not So Much

On January 6, 2019, Kit Kat Kitty wrote, Does anyone have any advice on how to end a story in a bittersweet way? I’m a sucker for bittersweet endings. However, I’m not sure how to really do that. I often feel as if bittersweet endings aren’t satisfying enough, and there’s always going to be a part of readers that wanted everything to end happily. Any advice on how to fix this problem?

Ideas poured in.

Melissa Mead: I think that there’s no such thing as an ending that satisfies everybody. Why do you feel like bittersweet endings might not be satisfying enough? What are they missing?

Kit Kat Kitty wrote back: In the kind of stories I like to write, I like to make my characters suffer. Losing a loved one, getting their memory wiped, realizing they may be wrong…even I’m tempted to let them live happily. Most people are satisfied when they think that someone, after so long, can have a rest. But then again, I could be wrong. I personally have always wondered if people who fought in wars that took up most of their youth could really ever move on. I guess I want to satisfy the part of me that wants a happy ending, and the part of me that doesn’t.

Christie V Powell: I thought Harry Potter did a good job. The happy epilogue with the kids really helped. Before that, Harry was just exhausted, and still in shock/mourning for the people who had died. The epilogue, many years later, showed that things did work out and peace did come, but that it took a long time. On the other hand, Animorphs, if you read the last couple of books, was realistic but not satisfying. They won (I hope that’s not a spoiler– no one expected the evil invading aliens to win, did they?), but some of the characters are left as a huge mess.

TV Tropes has a list of examples: https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/BittersweetEnding

Melissa Mead: FWIW, I love Lord of The Rings, and that has a classic bittersweet ending.

Raina: One key thing I’ve noticed in a lot of bittersweet endings is that characters (and by extension, the readers) want a lot of different things, but only get some of what they want. Or there are two good possible outcomes, but only one can happen. Sometimes the characters have to choose themselves, while sometimes it’s decided for them by the universe. One example of the latter is the ending of the final Narnia book; the whole gang gets to go back to the magical world of Narnia at the end and stay forever but *SPOILER ALERT* they do so by dying in a train crash, which means they also lose access to the “real world” forever. Sure, Narnia is a paradise and the characters seem pretty happy with living happily ever after there, but I, at least, was a bit sad at the thought of them all dying.

From a different perspective, I think adding some “sweet” to a bitter ending can by done by showing that life goes on or starts anew, even when loss happens. A great example of this is Charlotte’s Web. While the story does kind of have a happy conclusion to the main conflict (all the efforts to keep Wilbur alive succeed, and he’s now safe from being slaughtered), the story also takes a major sad turn immediately after when *SPOILER ALERT* Charlotte reaches the end of her lifespan and dies. But there’s also a glimmer of hope at the end because Charlotte left an egg sac behind, which then hatches into a bunch of baby spiders, a few of which elect to stay and keep Wilbur company. So even though Charlotte is gone, there’s also a promise of new life and new characters that help make up for the loss.

Another option is a Pyrrhic victory, in which the ending is happy, but getting to that ending came at a cost. The Harry Potter books is the perfect example: Voldemort is defeated, all of the main characters end up with happy lives, and the wizarding world is back to normal, but a whole bunch of beloved side characters died in order to get to that happy ending. So while the epilogue is more of a traditional happy ending, I imagine there’s still some sadness when you think about all the characters that aren’t there to enjoy it.

Melissa Mead: A Pyrrhic victory is one where the cost wasn’t worth it. I just find those depressing. With Harry Potter, even though we mourn the people who were killed, it does turn out better for the world in the long run.

“One example of the latter is the ending of the final Narnia book; the whole gang gets to go back to the magical world of Narnia at the end and stay forever…” Except for poor Susan. I get nightmares thinking of what it must have been like for her, left behind with her whole family killed. The Chronicles are some of my favorite books, except for that..

This discussion got me thinking about completely happy endings in a less-than-well-crafted story. My husband and I just finished watching a sci fi series on TV, which I won’t name. It was entertaining, and we stuck with it because the characters were appealing, even though we knew that the whole thing was flimsy. The writers, in my opinion, wrote themselves into a dark corner and then fabricated a happy ending by sending everybody back in time! Honestly, I was okay with it–I didn’t want tragedy, but it wasn’t great. The plot was incomprehensible to begin with, so the writers could have come up with an incomprehensible twist to save the day, which would have been better–though still not good.

I’m now thinking about romcoms as a source of completely happy endings. One of my favorites, When Harry Met Sally, is delightful, but both Harry and Sally, especially Harry, I think, have to face a lot of hard truths about themselves to get to Happy Ever After, and those discoveries don’t go away.

Or take Pride and Prejudice. Darcy has to recognize his pride, and both he and Elizabeth have to face their prejudices. Neither Wickham nor Lydia go away at the end. Mr. Bennett has to admit his failings and their consequences. The only one who doesn’t suffer is Mrs. Bennet, who starts out hopeless.

Or even my Ella Enchanted. Ella suffers in the course of the book, and her suffering will inform the rest of her life and the choices she makes. The experience of Lucinda’s curse could make her a little overprotective when she has children–but I don’t know, since I haven’t written a sequel.

My conclusion is that, unless the author goes back in time or erases the characters’ memories, if there was real suffering, there is some bittersweet.

Tragedy is always a choice, although it might be worth considering (but not now) if there’s always some sweetness, at least for someone, in the bitter. (Hamlet does solve the mystery.)

Of course endings don’t just pop up at the end. We head toward them from somewhere earlier in our story. Not everyone does this, but I usually have an idea about the ending before I start writing and I drive my story in that direction from the beginning.

So if we want a bittersweet ending, how do we set out to achieve it?

In LOTR, for example, Mordor is defeated, but Middle Earth changes, a possibility that Tolkien intimates early on. Or take Peter Pan, the original Barrie classic. The children–other than Peter–get the lives they want (if not the lives I want for them), but Peter is left alone in the purgatory of his perpetual childhood. He isn’t sad for long, because he isn’t capable of any prolonged feeling, another bittersweet element.

Let’s imagine an old-fashioned scale, the kind we see in illustrations of Blind Justice, and let’s use the scale for our bittersweet-ending purpose. Take the example of Charlotte’s Web, mentioned by Raina. On one balance is Wilbur; on the other is Charlotte. At the end, they aren’t in balance. Wilbur’s up, and Charlotte’s down, but not all the way down, not only because of the egg sac, but also because her life had so much meaning, and she proved herself to be such a good friend and wonderful person, er, spider. Or in Peter Pan, Wendy and her brothers and the lost boys are up, but Peter is partway down. Or hobbits and humans are up, but the elves are halfway down.

So, we can get our bittersweetness by making two things be at stake in our story, say winning a war and saving the treasures in the royal museum. At the end, the war is won and the museum is saved, but the tapestry woven by the great-grandfather of our MC, which we’ve made precious to the reader, is damaged past saving by fire. Bittersweet. Or more bittersweet if we destroy the museum entirely and if we’ve made the reader know the significance of this for the MC and her world.

For an MC with a personal struggle, like a lost loved one in Kit Kat Kitty’s example, we still can set up a counterweight. Suppose our MC, Josie, loses her mom, Naomi, when she’s sixteen and really needs a mother. In this case, the bitter may be easy, the sweet harder. We set up the conflict. Josie’s father, lost in his own grief, isn’t available to her. She’s a talented violinist and usually can lose herself in music, but now she can’t let herself feel pleasure when her mother no longer can. We can pile it on. Her friends, after a while, drift away because she’s so sad. She can’t concentrate, and her grades go down. A new driver, she totals her dad’s car.

But all of these bitters are also opportunities for sweet. When she picks up her violin again, she notices and her teacher confirms, that her playing has more depth of feeling. An unexpected friend stands by her. Her dad realizes that he’s abandoned her. (Maybe the car accident wakes him up.) Her former confident self starts asserting itself again; she asks for tutoring and applies to retake some exams.

We probably don’t want to apply all these fixes, or we’ll get a totally happy ending, but the possibilities are there, and we can make use of them.

Here are four prompts:

∙ Take “Hansel and Gretel,” in my opinion the most troubling fairy tale of them all. Write the whole story or the final scene and resolve the parental abandonment in a bittersweet way.

∙ Prince Charming doesn’t find Cinderella, the girl who can squeeze into the glass slippers. Write his life before and after the balls, his challenges, whatever they are, his continued longing for the mysterious damsel who fit into his arms, just as the slipper must surely have fit someone’s feet. Give him a bittersweet ending.

∙ Prince Charming doesn’t make his way to Cinderella’s stepmother’s house. Her fairy godmother, disappointed in the empty outcome of the balls, finds another child to tend to. Cinderella continues to live with her stepfamily. Write a scene or the whole story, giving it a bittersweet ending.

∙ Write the story of the war and the museum. Give it a bittersweet ending.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Opening the Past

Beth Schmelzer and I had a back-and-forth on this one. On December 22, 2018, she wrote, I am very interested in Ms Levine’s newest WIP.

I am writing (and re-writing) a historical fiction story which takes place in Indiana in 1959 and 1960. My main character is unhappy to find out her parents and grandmother have been keeping a “Family Secret” from her. The mystery involves her deceased grandfather. Any adult reading the book will guess the secret early, but readers in middle grade will not recognize the name of an obscure author named Leon David Hirsch. So you can see why I am interested in your research and your final book with such an intriguing plot. Solving the mystery for my MC is difficult because there is no Internet available to her. The clues to the family secret are discovered by listening to family conversations and reading hidden letters Deborah finds. Any suggestions will be gratefully accepted.

Me: I do see books by Leon David Hirsch on a Google search, but I’m sorry to say I don’t know who he was. And I’m not sure what your question (or questions) is. Can you say more?

Me again: Since Beth Schmelzer didn’t write back, I’m adding her question to my list as a general one about writing and researching a historical novel.

Then she did write back.

Beth Schmelzer: Leon David Hirsch was my grandfather. He wrote one long political novel in 1918 and a short mystery paperback published in 1946. That’s why I said he was obscure. The mystery in my novel is: Why does no one talk about the grandfather? I thought you might recognize that his name is Jewish. The MC in my novel is growing up in Indiana in the 1950’s; she only knows Christians (Protestants and some Catholics). My real question, which can only be answered as fiction: Why would family hide the fact that the grandfather was Jewish? I thought you would be interested in this question. Sorry to be so obtuse with dropping my grandfather ‘s name. Deborah thinks it sounds important, but she doesn’t know why!

I researched my first historical novel, Dave at Night, which takes place in 1926, before the internet–or before I was aware of it. That was in the late 1990s. But I had an advantage, which Beth Schmelzer’s MC also has: I knew people who were alive in 1926, and one in particular, the late, wonderful Irv Aschheim, had an encyclopedic memory. Of course, I didn’t just talk to Irv. I visited the New York Historical Society, looked at the photo collection at the New York Public Library. I read books about the period, especially about the Harlem Renaissance, which comes into the story. I also read poems and one novel written at the time. I looked at old newspapers on microfiche. I visited the New York City Subway Museum and the Tenement House Museum. I even talked to an expert in classic cars.

Our MC for the purposes of this post, let’s call her Susan, a popular name at the time, has family who remember the grandfather. and she must know other people who were around then, too. Since the novel takes place in 1959 and 1960 and the grandfather died in the 1940s, Susan is researching recent history. If she can’t ask her parents and her grandmother direct questions, she can ask her friends’ parents, her teachers, the kindly owner of the local candy store.

She can do many of the same things I did, and she can visit the local newspaper office itself, talk to reporters. She doesn’t know the internet will ever exist, so she doesn’t realize how handicapped she is. People in those days relied on snail mail much more than we do today. She could write to people, or she can apply for records. Tension can build while she waits for answers.

Naturally, she’ll read the two books her grandfather wrote if she knows about them. If the family has kept his things, she’ll go through them on the sly.

I’d also wonder how the grandfather died and if he lived nearby. Naturally, I don’t know if Susan remembers him.

Being a detective here, myself, I deduce that Susan and her parents aren’t Jewish, and Hirsch isn’t their surname, for which there could be more than one reason. For one, Susan’s grandfather may have been the only Jew in the family. Or they all may have converted, for faith reasons, or to be more like everybody else, or even out of fear of stigma. Their reason, however, would have to be something that caused them discomfort, or it wouldn’t be a secret–nice for conflict!

On to historical fiction in general.

Beth Schmelzer is drawn to her subject because it’s connected to her family history. Same for me. Dave at Night is loosely based on my dad’s childhood in an orphanage, and my ancestors were expelled from Spain in 1492, as were my characters. I wanted to explore what that may have been like.

It’s not a bad idea to think about what connects you to a possible historical period. Maybe you love to read about the Civil War, or you live near a battlefield, or your ancestors were slaves or slave holders. Maybe you’re into medieval reenactments–which will give you a leg up on research. Or maybe you’re just drawn to certain historical moments.

You can ask yourself questions to find your topic and see which you’re most drawn to: What was it like to be a woman in the court of King Henry VIII? From the vantage point of a descendant of Europeans or of Asians when the continents were connected, what was it like to come upon the Grand Canyon? What characters were involved in turning ancient Greece into a democracy? How did their democracy fail? What happened in the first encounters between ancient Romans and ancient Britons? What did they deduce and what did they assume about one another?

You could reimagine any of these as fantasy, but you want to try your hand at actual history and shape your story around what really happened.

The next step is broad reading. My go-to starting spot is Wikipedia. Read the article about your topic, and check out the footnotes and bibliography, where you’ll often strike gold. Sometimes there are links to scholarly articles that you can just click on, that you may even be able to download. Or you may find a general book that covers your period.

You can also google “books on…” whatever. Then look the book up and check out the reader reviews. Your local library may be able to get the book for you. Even better, if you’re attending a university, its library will be able to.

While you’re reading this general book, think about conflict and what your story may be. As that takes shape, start jotting down notes or a rough outline. Look for where the story might end. (Also, this book will have footnotes and a bibliography that may include books that focus more narrowly on your subject.) If you can find material that was written during your period, you’ll get more than facts; you’ll get attitude, perspective, language.

I found out in researching the expulsion book that historians and experts are nice! And kind! When I had questions, I first looked for the answers myself, but if I came up empty, I checked the copyright date of my book. If it was published within the last twenty years or so, I googled the author for some way to contact her or him. Usually I found something, and usually the person I reached out to was willing to help.

It’s amazing what’s available online, a lot for free. I’ve read doctoral theses. I read an undergraduate thesis about caravels, a kind of sailing ship in the fifteenth century. I had questions, but I couldn’t find the author on Facebook or anywhere. I finally used an online White Pages and saw several people with the author’s name. He’d dedicated the thesis to his then fiancee, and one of the White Pages listings had her name associated with his. If they’d broken up, I’d never have managed to contact him! I wrote to him via snail mail and started out by assuring him I wasn’t a stalker!

I’ve spoken to some experts by phone, and three have been willing to read my manuscript and tell me where I went wrong. A naval historian answered many detailed questions. Of course I’ll acknowledge their help in the book.

What we do in writing historical fiction uses what historians give us and goes beyond, by which I don’t mean at all that fiction is better, just different. We’re not tracking down archives that haven’t been looked at in years, even centuries. We’re taking those hard-won discoveries and, like Sleeping Beauty’s prince, waking them up. The historian deals in events and facts. We do, too, but we also deal in texture. How did a rural fifteenth century village smell? What sounds would you hear if you walked down the street? Who would be on the street? Doing what?

We have to know those details or our story won’t come to life, but they’re hard to track down if we’re researching a period that isn’t recent. I once wrote a question to Ask-a-Historian on Reddit and said I needed the information for a novel. My question had to do with harbor life. The historians-in-charge said that Reddit historians don’t like questions from novelists, because they tend to be frivolous!

Google images of houses and furniture are great for finding detail, likewise images of paintings from the period. Museum websites are marvelous places to noodle around in. I found and bought a modern copy of one of the oldest books on fashion in the world.

Research is so fascinating that it’s dangerous. We have to keep our purpose in mind: to write a novel, not to know more than anyone on earth about, say, Napoleon’s childhood!

Having said that, though, I’m so glad to have made the discoveries that I did, like that gambling was considered a major crime in the Middle Ages–yet everybody did it. Sailors and passengers often played cards for money on ships, because life on board was boring when there wasn’t a storm or pirates weren’t attacking. Playing cards were new and expensive, then, and few people owned them, so the ones who did would rent them out. Really!

But the owner of the deck wouldn’t charge until someone won a hand. The winner would be expected to be in a good mood then, and willing to pay. Also, sailors and passengers would gather to watch games, and winners would be expected to tip them for watching (I don’t know why) out of their winnings. (None of this comes into my book, but I’m delighted just to know it.)

These are the pleasures of researching historical fiction. Of course, our story has to work as a story, too, and we have to deal as usual with plot, character, setting, pacing, POV–everything.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Read a Wikipedia article about a historical event or a figure that interests you. Think about what the conflict was at the time, or a major challenge in your person’s life. Consider how you might build a story around that. Jot down a few notes. Without doing further research, write a scene. If you decide to continue, embark on more research.

∙ Interview an old person! Like me! My memories of the world-shaking events during my life are pretty vague, but I do remember–as few seem to–that Richard Nixon (aside from the other thing) imposed wage-and-price controls when inflation got out of hand. Prices were zooming so much that I often observed supermarket cashiers making mistakes because they couldn’t believe the escalations. (There were no bar codes then. Everything was manual.) The price controls stopped the inflation, but my salary was also frozen, so it was a wash for me. Anyway, think about what the old person you interviewed said. Can you find a story there? Do a little research. Write a scene.

∙ Pick one of these: the Korean War; the Dust Bowl; the French Revolution; Mayan civilization when the Spanish explorers showed up; ancient Somalia. Go to Wikipedia again. If conflict isn’t obvious, look for it. What can by your angle? Who will your characters be? Write a scene.

Have fun, and save what you write!

The Rewrite

On December 30, 2018, Kyryiann wrote, So, editing. This last November I finished a first draft for the first time. Any tips on the whole editing process?

A few of you had suggestions.

The NEWLY REPRESENTED Melissa Mead: I usually let it sit for a bit, so I can re-read with fresh eyes to spot errors and make sure that everything makes sense.

Christie V Powell: I like to make a list of all of the scenes, describing them in just a few words, then organizing those descriptions into chapters. It helps me see at a glance what needs to be rearranged and what scenes I still need to write.

viola03 says: Congrats on finishing the first draft!

I’m like Melissa Mead in that I like to let it sit for a bit and re-read it with fresh eyes. My first drafts often turn out more like just the plot line and not a whole lot else, so I start with reading it over and adding some more detail, description, backstory, etc. In a draft that I spent a year editing (I know, yikes!), there was one scene that I just couldn’t get right. I tried it one way, let it sit, then tried it another way, let it sit, until I was happy with it. Sometimes trial and error is the best way to get a scene right :).

Once you’re happy with your edits, let your friends and family read the draft and ask for constructive criticism.

Yes! Congratulations, Kyryiann! You’ve done what for me is the hardest part!

Last night I sat in on a webinar on revision conducted by children’s book expert and free-lance editor Harold Underdown, along with his business partner, Eileen Robinson, another kid lit publishing pro. You can link to their revision workshops and revision info here: http://www.kidsbookrevisions.com/. Harold, whom I count as a friend, is the person behind the informative website, The Purple Crayon http://www.underdown.org/, which I encourage you to visit and noodle around in if you’re interested in writing for children. The book that Harold and Eileen had chosen to illustrate their revision process was my historical novel, Dave at Night. I was honored!

(Many years ago, before I was published, I submitted my picture book manuscript called “Dave at Night” to Harold. He was one of the few editors at the time who took interest in my work and gave me thoughtful feedback. He asked me to expand the story into a chapter book, which I did, and which he rejected–but in the revision I discovered that I’m a novelist, that the longer form suits me. Before then, I had been afraid to try a novel, and I’m forever grateful. Several years and many revisions later, the book was published with a different editor.)

This is a long way to get to telling you that the process the webinar described is called a revision grid, and it’s very much like what Christie V Powell does. Essentially, it’s a list of scenes along with description. The descriptions are organized into a few metrics, like thoughts, dialogue, setting, that characterize the scene. In the process of creating the grid, the writer sees what she’s accomplished and locates the spots that need work.

I agree with Melissa Mead that it’s useful to wait a while before diving into revision. Distance gives us the perspective to see our work fresh. Depending on our natures, we can be less hypercritical–or we can see that not everything is perfect.

If you feel that the draft is dreadful–no worries! First drafts are supposed to be a mess. You’ve done it right.

Here are some of the major things to look at in going through your draft:

• In places, our story feels rushed. In these spots it may be hard to know how the character got from one setting to the next, one feeling to the next, one time to the next, or how relationships, attitudes, or feelings have shifted. In those places, we have to expand to show our story’s evolution. We may need to add scenes and reveal more, remembering to include our MC’s thoughts and feelings, as well as who-said-what and why and where. This expansion and seeming slow-down is likely to have the paradoxical effect of making our story appear to speed up, because, for the reader, being on the ground where events are happening is thrilling.

• We’re bored when we’re reading our manuscript. The problem here may also be that we have to add more showing. We may be narrating too much. Or it may be that we’ve been protecting our MC and we have to inflict the worst, or almost the worst, on her.

• Our setting may not be fully fleshed out. The reader may have trouble envisioning it. I know some of you draw maps for your stories. In this case, you might like to draw the setting. Or you can draw it in words in your notes, and then think about how your characters would experience and navigate the space and what they would react to in it, keeping in mind what you want to make the reader aware of.

• Are your characters consistent? Are we making them do things for plot reasons that they wouldn’t do? In revision, we can think about how to move our plot along without forcing our characters to go against their natures. Or we can rewrite our characters so they’ll naturally do what we need them to. Or, we can have them change, making sure the reader is looped into all the steps in the change.

• Here’s one I’ve been guilty of more than once: making my MC, whom I want the reader to adore, unlikable. For me, when I’ve done this, I’ve made her a tad self-centered and clueless about the people around her. I hasten to add that you may not want the reader to love your MC, or you may want him to come to love her gradually as she evolves. In this case, you just want to be sure you’re achieving the effect you’re after.

• And another I keep running into: pacing. Mine is often too slow, especially at the beginning. My solution is to trim, or, more accurately, hack. Every sentence is a candidate for the chopping block. I don’t think I’ve ever revised a novel without cutting more than 100 pages. As I’ve said before here, I don’t just send them to oblivion–I copy them to my Extras document in case they turn out to be essential after all. And this comforts me. They still exist. And my remaining pages move faster. Besides, I believe in concision. Wordiness is my enemy.

While I’m writing my first draft I always become aware of problem areas that I don’t want to go back to fix right then, because it’s generally best, if we can, to soldier on to the end. When I sense an issue, I go to the top of my manuscript–you can do this in a separate document, if you prefer–and make a note. Here’s one from my forthcoming book about the expulsion of the Jews from Spain: Handling slaves. Is there anything apologist about it? Should I make Hamdun be a servant and skip all that?

(Ultimately, I decided to keep the slavery, because it was common then, and I wanted readers to know that, at the time, most slaves in Europe were Muslims from North Africa, and most slaves in North Africa were Christians from southern Europe, both taken by conquest. The sub-Saharan slave trade was in its infancy in the fifteenth century.)

Anyway, when I finish my first draft, I consult my top-of-the-manuscript notes. As I clear them up, I delete them.

I’m an inveterate fiddler, so I repair my sentences and paragraphs at every stage, even in first drafts, when it’s a foolish time-waster–because the sentences and paragraphs are likely to be cut. I vary sentence length and sentence and paragraph beginnings. I’m even, a product of my poetry training, sensitive to the sound of my prose and its meter. Sometimes I add or delete alliteration and assonance. When I want extra punch, I may bring on the iambs, da DUM, da DUM, because ending a sentence, a paragraph, or a chapter on a stressed syllable packs a wallop.

As we go through successive revisions, when our drafts are more polished–and certainly before submission–we make sure all is clear, because clarity is the writer’s deity. We have to say exactly what we mean. (By the way, that last sentence is in iambs. We HAVE to SAY exACTly WHAT we MEAN.)

Here are four prompts:

∙ Your main character is in a twelve-step program and is attempting to make amends to the people he’s hurt. Some take this well, but others not so much. Pick one of the not-so-much characters and write a story about the relationship and how it develops in this real-life revision.

∙ The fairy Lucinda has decided to reform herself. She is visiting the (still-living) victims of her gifts and attempting to repair the damage her gifts created, but, in her bumptious fashion, she brings on hosts of unintended consequences. You can pick gifts from my books or make up fresh ones. Write a story about one or more of her attempts to repair the past.

∙ Pick a paragraph or a page from a finished draft or a WIP and rewrite it five ways.

∙ Pick a chapter from a finished draft and trim it as much as you can. Do this in more than one pass. Trim. Walk away. Wait an hour. Go back and trim again. Pay special attention to your adjectives and adverbs. Do you really need this one or that? Sometimes I discover that I’ve written two sentences in a row that say the same thing. One can go. When you’re finished and have waited at least another hour, read the skinny chapter. What do you think? Better or worse?

Have fun, and save what you write!

Plotting Plot

On November 25, 2018, Superb♥Girl wrote, I have a problem–a big one.

This isn’t for any WIP in particular, but my writing in general. I have total confidence in the my world-building, and I quite love my characters–but for the life of me, plot is something I just can’t tackle.

Many of you chimed in.

Melissa Mead: I approach plot with great trepidation and trembling. Which is probably why I write sooo slowly.

I’ve been checking out the Snowflake Method recently. (Note: I haven’t actually BOUGHT anything. I just read the article: https://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/articles/snowflake-method/

Sara: I have plot troubles too. Sometimes it’s so hard to find the solution to things, or to even create a substantial problem in the first place. My advice is lots of trial and error, exploring everything you think of, and research, both on plotting in general and on whatever your subject is.

Kyryiann: I mainly start with the character and the world as well. As a pantser, I tend to come up with plot as I go, starting with just one main idea – like “hey, it would be cool to write a story about a spy!” – and building it up and branching out from there.

Writeforfun: It’s funny, I’m the other way around! I always start with plot! Although, you can’t really have a plot without a vague idea of the sort of characters that are in it, I suppose, so perhaps you could say that I start with characters as well as the plot. For me, I have to know what the story is about before I can really develop any of the characters or bother with the world it’s in. The exception to that would be the sequels I’ve written to one of my original books, which naturally came with a pre-made cast of characters; but even those I only wrote because I had a story in mind that they happened to fit into nicely.

Now that I think about it, I think my current book may be the first one I’ve intentionally started without a plot already formed in my head – after my computer crashed and I lost my previous stories, I needed a fresh start. There are certain personalities and themes that I’m drawn to in stories, so I tried to think of a character and plot that would include one – in this case, a misfit with self-confidence issues who must learn to accept himself – and figure out what sort of plot would explore that. I started thinking of things that would challenge and grow my character as an individual, as well as the grand-scheme conflict (in this case a looming war) to introduce some bigger dangers. I thought of how a few more characters could help further the story, even bring a bit of their own into it…and from these fragments I pieced together the idea for my tale. As the story came along, the characters kind of evolved into it. Once I had the story and characters, I came up with a world to put them in. I don’t know if that’s backwards – but it worked for me, at least!

Perhaps I begin with plot because I am a planner; I simply must have at least a general idea of where my plot is going. If I don’t, I’ll simply meander into nothing but pointless dialogue before giving up. Having a concept of where I’m going keeps me on track; the surprise for me, then, is seeing exactly how things unfold, how conversations go, unexpected subplots that pop up, and the occasional character that surprises me and breaks out of the plan I had set.

But, at least for me, it all starts with an original plot!

Christie V Powell: KM Weiland’s website has a lot of ads for her printed books, but all of the information is available for free on her blog. Her series on Story Structure starts here: https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/secrets-story-structure-complete-series/
And her series on incorporating character arcs into plot starts here: https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/write-character-arcs/

Last year, I started a story just pantsing, and it turned into a huge mess that’s taken me over a year, so far, to edit into something publishable. I did two for NaNo this year that are a lot smoother and will take a ton less editing, because I have the story structure in place. So having an organized system works a lot better for me.

I also liked the book “Story Genius” by Lisa Cron, which has a similar system for using character to create plot.

Song4myKing: Unfortunately, I don’t have nearly as much time to write as I would like, so I usually have mulled the story around and around in my head and gotten a good sense of what will and what won’t work before I even start to write. Some of my stories have sprung from an intriguing world-building idea. One story comes from one of the biggest threats my characters in that world face, just because of the nature of the people and their environment. Another one came out of my wondering how this environment came to be, thousands of years earlier. Both of these have a fairly obvious place to begin, and I know where I want it to end up.

But the two stories I’ve gotten most excited about developed a little less logically. The seed ideas for both of them were dreams. Basically, when I woke up, I had a scene in my head complete with action, characters, and emotion. And I wanted to figure out what in the world was going on, and it had to make sense in the wide-awake daylight. I think the emotion helped. For one thing, it made me care. For another, it gave me a direction to start searching. I thought of a number of different scenarios and discarded them, because they didn’t really pack the right emotional wallop. Either that, or they had the right emotion, but lacked in the common sense department. Then once I had a context that seemed to fit, that context was the plot. It was a conflict, and it had to have a beginning, and it had to go somewhere. And I had to follow it and figure out where I wanted it to end up.

I haven’t yet tried to stir up this process artificially, but I want to try it the next time I’m stuck, or wanting to start something new. Here’s how I might try it: take a snippet of overheard or imagined conversation or a little action with its reaction, add two or three faces from a WIP or from random strangers on Pinterest character boards, pick an emotion (a negative one), add a second emotion that could be connected but is not a synonym to the first one, mix well, mentally narrate the scene, then stare out a window on a rainy day and ask “Why?”

Remember, no idea is too crazy to play with! The freedom of mental narration is that no one else can possibly read it but yourself. No one else will know how many weird possibilities you entertained before you found what worked.

These are great!

I want to summarize them for everyone to use, but first, a quick word about plot. What’s at its dark heart? Conflict! Trouble! Misery for our MCs! That’s what we most need to keep in mind when we think about plot.

Kyryiann comes up with a main idea, like a story about a spy. Spy suggests danger. We ask where and upon whom our spy is spying. Why? What’s the mission? As we answer these questions, provisionally at the beginning, our world, our characters, and our plot emerge. We remember that we have to make trouble, often, if not constantly.

Writeforfun: Knowing what the story is about and what themes she’s drawn to, like self-acceptance. Here we start with a theme: self-acceptance. Which, naturally, suggests that at the outset our MC doesn’t accept herself. And what does that imply? Yes! Conflict! We think about which aspects of herself she doesn’t accept and whether or not she’s right. What can we bring in to force a climax? Are we writing an action-oriented story, or an interior one? Because the kind of conflict will be different. What other characters can we bring in to intensify her dissatisfaction? Who will hurt her? who will help her? Who will do both?

Like Writeforfun, I’m charmed by seeing where a bare-bones story takes me as I flesh it out. Surprises abound.

Christie V Powell has to have a story structure in place before she starts writing, which means that discovering the conflict and the way it works out start earlier, and the steps to resolution will be planned, probably in an outline. We can do that, too, so that we see our way clear to the end. Our characters struggle, but we’re secure!

Song4myKing mulls her ideas over and gets them somewhat set before she starts. I do that, too, but usually once my story is underway.

Some of her plots come from world-building, and Superb♥Girl enjoys world-building. In this case, we think about the opportunities for conflict in the world. For example, Winston Churchill said (two months after I was born–I just looked it up) that democracy is the worst system of government, except for all the others. Suppose we have our world ruled by a committee of the wise. What could go wrong? We probe and uncover what does–the conflict. We think about the characters we have in mind for the committee. How will they be part of the mess? What will their personalities lead them to do in response? What can we have them do to intensify the trouble? Who will suffer to make matters better?

Song4myKing was lucky enough to be graced twice by dreams that matured into stories. A useful aspect of the dreams was the emotion. We can use that. We start with a feeling, probably not happiness: foreboding, fear, out-of-control giddiness, or something else. Working backward, we wonder what caused it. Who was involved?

Many writers begin with a character who wants something he can’t have easily. Again, we’re looking for conflict. Superb♥Girl loves her characters. After we decide which ones are our MCs, we need to think about what would make them miserable. And next what will keep them miserable? And what might they do to become less miserable? How might they fail? How might they succeed, a little? Who in our cast will make them unhappier? What are the actions that will go with all of that?

I’m with Melissa Mead, in that plot is the hardest part for me, which is one reason that I often go to fairy tales for inspiration, because they already have a plot, and I can borrow it. I’m helped by the gaps in the original versions of these stories. My plot emerges as I figure out why Cinderella obeys her stepfamily, why the evil queen in “Snow White” is so influenced by her mirror, why the prince kisses Sleeping Beauty.

We all can go to these stories for plot, because they lend themselves to so many interpretations. Same with folk tales, tall tales, myths, Bible stories. And we can dip into history. Many of the big moments have been explored fictionally, but history is enormous and full of drama and lends itself to all kinds of interpretations, like the American Revolution or, really, any war, with vampires–all that delicious blood! We can bring in fantasy elements. The last czar of Russia can be a dragon. Henry VIII can be a wizard, who doesn’t understand what it’s like to be human.

Here are four prompts:

• Henry VIII is a wizard, and a tad self-centered. Kill off his last wife, Catherine Parr, in any way you like and give him a seventh, who can be your MC. Write what happens.

• Read or reread Jane Eyre–or read a plot summary. Branch off from the original with the tale of St. John Rivers, the suitor turned down by Jane.

• Go with the spy idea. Your MC is spying on the secret society, the NVLM. She has to infiltrate the group even though they can all read minds and she can’t. Write how she does it. Keep going and write the story.

• Callie can’t stand her own puppy-dog nature. She’s nice to people even if they’re unpleasant to her. If someone blames her for anything, she can barely stay inside her skin, she’s so upset. Someone comes into her life who is distinctly unkind, someone who, for whatever reason you decide, is going to be around for awhile–a new family member, a schoolmate, a teacher, a boss. Write her story.

Have fun, and save what you write!

On-the-Nose Prose

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

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

Which reminds me, any tips for good prose?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are three prompts:

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

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

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

Have fun, and save what you write!

Nobody’s Perfect

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so on. There must be more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have fun and save what you write!