Wimp or Not a Wimp

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

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

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

Any tips?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Onward!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are three prompts:

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

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

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

Have fun, and save what you write!

Stalled in Love

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

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

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

Christie V Powell: Well, you asked for it

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are four prompts:

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

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

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

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

Have fun, and save what you write!

Over-the-Top Suffering

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

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

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

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

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

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

On to the post.

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

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

A brief back-and-forth followed:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I would put down the book.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are four prompts:

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

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

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

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

Have fun, and save what you write!

Quick Connection

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

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

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

A back-and-forth followed:

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

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

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

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

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

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

These are terrific!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

∙ that the event has an emotional impact.

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

∙ friendship;

∙ someone who listens;

∙ money;

∙ a doctor;

∙ a snake;

∙ a can of tuna fish;

∙ to catch a break.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are three prompts:

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

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

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

Have fun, and save what you write!

Mutually Assured Destruction Avoidance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Readers may be a tad annoyed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

∙ to end child abduction by gnomes.

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

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

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

Here are four prompts:

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

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

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

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

Have fun, and save what you write!

Where to put that plot?

I may add this as an occasional blog feature: short comments on style or other matters. Here’s a craft one I’ve thought about often–I always question the use of the word suddenly. Sometimes it’s perfect, but usually it’s unnecessary, and the word drains the surprise from whatever is about to occur, because it warns the reader. So I’d recommend being aware of it and using it only when nothing else will do.

Admittedly, however, I once told this prejudice to an editor, who laughed and said, “Writers!” So my opinion isn’t universally shared. I leave it to you.

Do you like this addition?

And for those of you who’ll be in the New York City area: I’ll be signing books from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm on Saturday, September 29th, at the Chappaqua Book Festival, where there may be many authors you love. I’ll have plenty of time to chat. Here’s a link to the event: http://www.ccbfestival.org/.

On July 18, 2018, Laura R wrote, I have a fanfiction that, while not my current WIP, is on the back burner to be turned into an original story. I agree that we can see what is the essential part of the story. If the essential part relies on something from the original author’s work, can that “something” be changed? For example, my fanfiction is based on a long, ongoing guild roleplay from World of Warcraft. One of game’s villains was the Lich King in the frozen Northlands. I still plan on keeping the undead, but I changed their location to a dessert (once actually a sea bay) and their leader to a dracolich that’s seeking to gain a corporeal, draconic form again. Many of the characters’ “classes” (what their attacks and weapon and armor types are based on) are really basic to fantasy settings, so I can drop the game-based specific attacks (or attack names) and use my own.

And then there’s your actual plot. If you change the setting, does your plot have to change? Does it become shorter because you no longer have to deal with part of the author’s original world? Does it become longer because you have created your own world?

In my reply, I said that I’d address the setting part of Laura R’s question.

Recently, I received a group email from my MFA alums, alerting people to an adjunct job opening at a university in New York City, teaching a class about place in literature, and the exploration was to be conducted through original student writing.

I don’t have time to take on a college-level class so I didn’t apply. From teaching one once, I learned that I spent four hours a week in the classroom and thirty more preparing and going over student work. Even my summer workshop for kids, which lasts only six weeks and is a labor of love, devours a surprising amount of time. Regardless, however, I thought about how I would teach such a class.

And I realized right away that fantasy, because of world-building, focuses more on place (setting) than other genres. I don’t mean setting isn’t always important, and isn’t sometimes essential–think of mystery series that are set in certain cities or parts of the world in which location becomes almost a character.

But for fantasy, consider The Wizard of Oz! Though I’ve read the book, I know the movie better, so that’s what I’m thinking of (and I just refreshed my memory with the plot summary on Wikipedia). What would be left without Oz and, by contrast, the colorless version of Kansas?

Without Oz or Kansas, we could have a girl who doesn’t appreciate her life. We could blow up that life in a way that doesn’t involve a twister, and we could have her travel somewhere and feel surprisingly homesick, so that the rest of the adventure is an attempt, that succeeds in the end, to get home. Of course, there’s also Toto, who sets everything in motion by biting Almira Gulch and being in danger of being euthanized, so we can imagine a different inciting incident involving a pet.

That’s bare bones. There’s much more.

Dorothy is deluded about herself (that she didn’t like her life at home), and so are other characters: the lion, who wrongly thinks he’s cowardly, the tin man, who wrongly thinks he’s unfeeling, and the straw man, who wrongly thinks he’s stupid–in a universe (setting) that accommodates these sorts of creatures. Not to mention the people of Emerald City (setting), who are deceived by their glasses into thinking that everything is green!

So we’d have to include fantastical creatures in our world, although not necessarily the same kinds, and self-delusion, since ridding the characters of them is part of the plot.

There’s the wizard himself, who deludes everyone but isn’t deluded himself. We’d need a revered but remote charismatic figure, whose unmasking figures into the story.

Then we have the good and evil witches and the enslaved flying monkeys, who are all part of this world (setting). For the new plot, they don’t have to be witches, but we need figures who represent good and evil, and we need minions of evil. The villain has to try to do our MC in, and our symbol of virtue has to save her, because, alas, Dorothy doesn’t get her own self out of Oz–or really do much to better her situation, although she is brave when she throws water on the scarecrow and accidentally melts the witch. I would say for that one, we want in our plot a villain with a secret and weird Achilles’ heel.

For all the time I’ve watched The Wizard of Oz, I’ve never noticed that the threat of Toto being put to sleep is never resolved. So if we’re following The Wizard of Oz we have to leave a major plot thread hanging!

I have to conclude, though I went into this exploration unsure, that plot–a detailed, step-by-step plot–at least in the case of The Wizard of Oz–is organically interwoven with setting.

The charm for me in discovering both my plot and my setting, is the way the two, plus character, act on the others. The setting that we create suggests directions for our story, and our plot suggests the setting that will best accommodate it.

Having said that, however, we could take the bare-bones plot that I described near the beginning of the post and create a new setting for it and follow the twists and turns that the new setting takes us to. Fairy tales, fables, and myths, with their simple story lines, can be plunked into lots of settings. Same for any plot archetype.

As for whether our new plot will be shorter or longer than its prototype–could be either one, depending on what we do and the complexity of the setting we create.

One more thing. This is on the subject of converting fanfiction into original work. I’m not an attorney or an expert in copyright, so I’d use a practical rule of thumb. Turn the tables and imagine that we wrote the work that someone else is basing a new story on. If we feel infringed–if we recognize our own creation in the new fiction and feel that our story has been stolen–then the writer hasn’t gone far enough to make the work her own. Naturally, if the story we’re basing our new plot on is already in the public domain, we’re home free. We want to be original because of course we do, but we don’t have to worry about how much of the earlier elements we’re using.

Here are three prompts:

∙ You probably saw this coming: Use as much as you possibly can of the detailed Wizard of Oz plot summary in a setting of your own devising–could be a fairy-tale kingdom, some part of the contemporary world, a dystopian future, an actual period in the past, or anything else.

∙ Use as much as you can of The Wizard of Oz plot in a masked ball.

∙ Pick a traditional story–fairy tale, myth, fable, tall tale–and put it in a high-tech setting. Let the setting influence what happens.

Have fun, and save what you write!

The Writer Who Never Gives Up–Downsides and Upsides

On July 21, 2018, Raina wrote, Has anyone ever had the problem where your current project isn’t working, but for some reason you just can’t let it go and move on to a new project, leaving you in a weird writing limbo? I had a story in the works, but recently there was a book published with the exact same plot (and I don’t mean with the same general story structure; the specific premise and character goals are exactly the same, and it’s a pretty unique concept, not a widely-used trope), forcing me to do a complete overhaul of my story. I’ve spent the past month trying, but everything I come up with either doesn’t work, or is something that is fine objectively but I just don’t want to write. I know that the most logical option would be to accept the unfortunate coincidence and move on since this idea clearly isn’t working (at least for now) and I have a bunch of other story ideas which I’m more excited about, but some lingering stubbornness in me refuses to let go. I think it’s because I’ve been working on this for so long, that I’ve gotten too attached to the idea and am clinging to it out of sheer stubbornness. Any suggestions/encouragement? In this instance my problem isn’t not having something to write, but rather giving up on writing it.

Has this ever happened to anybody here?

Melissa Mead wrote back, Maybe save it in a “later” folder? You’re not quitting. You’re just letting it sit.

I agree with Melissa Mead that may be a good way to go.

I’ve mentioned here before that it took me four-and-a-half years to write Stolen Magic, a miserable four-and-a-half years at that. I got lost. My plot was too complicated and yet didn’t really boil down to much. I wrote hundreds of pages and tossed them. I gave myself a month’s vacation to gain perspective, which didn’t work, either. But, like Raina, I was too stubborn to walk away and start something else. In the end, though, without realizing it, I did do something new, because the story I wound up with has very little connection with the one I meant to write.

I’ve talked about this before, too: In economics, there’s something called sunk costs. My story was a sunk cost, because I’d sunk so much time into it, and if I abandoned it, that time would be lost. I didn’t know the terminology then, but I knew I didn’t want to give up the time.

And in economics there’s also opportunity costs. While I was thrashing about with Stolen Magic, I was wasting the time I might have spent more productively in writing other stories.

I held onto my sunk cost and paid the opportunity cost. (I hope no economists are reading this since I’m probably expressing it all wrong–but the theory is right.)

I’m bringing this up, because it helps us see what’s going on, and economics makes the question less emotional. Our heart may be aching over the possibility of a break-up with our beloved WIP, but we lift our heads and see all the other stories that would like to woo us.

We can ask ourselves what, other than sunk costs, makes the separation so hard. Is it the theme? Our MC? A secondary character? The tone? A particular plot twist? Does this story concern a problem we can’t stop thinking about? I’m more likely to come up with answers if I ask these questions in writing, in my notes.

Once we’ve figured out what we’re so drawn to in our WIP, we can consider how to use that thing or things in a new story. We can make a list! With luck, soon we’re off and running, with something partly old, partly new.

In Raina’s case, the published book and the WIP are very close, but–just saying–suppose she’d never read and never even heard of the other one? She would have had the satisfaction of finishing her story, and maybe, while she was writing, it would have diverged so much from the other that the resemblance became very faint.

Ideas, as you may know, aren’t copy protected. Only their expression is. Probably no one today would dare write a book about a boy in wizard school, but if Rip Van Winkle woke up and wrote such a book, he wouldn’t be sued, and his would probably be very little like Harry Potter.

Bud Not Buddy, an orphan story by Christopher Paul Curtis, which won the Newbery award in 2000, came out in the same year as my orphan story, Dave at Night. When I met Christopher Paul Curtis, he said that if our books hadn’t been published at roughly the same time, one of us would have been suing the other. I didn’t think so. I certainly wouldn’t have felt that he had stolen anything from me. I don’t think either of us lost readers as a consequence. A result, though, was that the two books were often reviewed together, not set against each other, but in tandem.

I don’t read much fantasy these days, and I stay away from fairy tale retellings, because I don’s want to be influenced. If something comes into my head that already flowed out of someone else’s typing fingers, so be it. I’m innocent. I didn’t get it from that other author.

Raina asks for encouragement. All I have to offer is that the writing life isn’t easy, but we are constantly surprised and delighted by the buried treasure our deep brains offer up to us. One project may not work out, but it’s just one of many, with many more to come. Onward!

Here are three prompts:

∙ Write a story about a young ant in ant wizard school.

∙ Pick one of the lost boys in Peter Pan or one of the dwarfs in “Snow White” and give him his own story, weaving in threads from the classic.

∙ Eliza Dolittle of My Fair Lady, who sells flowers in London, is almost but not quite a beggar. Write a scene from her back story that enables her to keep her dignity and self-respect.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Through a Pen Darkly

Before the post, I want to mention that I have a couple of appearances coming up in New York City and the nearby town of Chappaqua. You can check them out here on the website by clicking “In Person” and then “Appearances.”

On June 26, 2018, Raina wrote, Does anyone else have the problem where a simple, relatively lighthearted story gets so bogged down by serious/heavy themes that it becomes a different story altogether, and not necessarily one you want to tell? My WIP started out as a relatively simple adventure about Snow White being resurrected with dark magic, but then it got complicated and went into some pretty deep issues about power, human nature, and society. And even though those are interesting themes that would be great to explore in a book, it’s not what I want to do right now. Is there any way to dial back the “seriousness” of a work without losing the general story?

Poppie answered, I’ve been wondering about that myself lately. One idea which I’ve been using in my WIP fairy story is to make sure there is plenty of humor. My MC Lio and his friends are being trained to rescue fairies from dangerous situations where they could end up killed. But Lio is a coward, which can add a lot of comedy to the situation and still have a message to send. I also have a character who isn’t totally comic relief but still has a lot of smart answers for every situation.

You could also NOT kill off beloved characters that play a big part in the story (although you can absolutely kill villains, and unimportant characters can die). In my WIP, fairies can (and do) get injured, but no one dies. You can have consequences, but not have them get dark, such as having a character struggle with survivor’s guilt the whole novel.

Raina wrote back, I agree, humor is a great way to lighten things up. For some reason humor comes harder for me when I’m writing YA (as opposed to when I’m writing MG), but I think this book might need it so I’ll definitely give that a try.

I’m with Poppie that not killing off characters allows the mood to stay light. Death is such a buzzkill!

And what Raina says about YA versus MG humor is interesting. Young adulthood is a daunting time. The complexities that pre-adolescents may not see jump out at teens, and ways to cope aren’t as developed as they (usually) become in adulthood. So the humor is different for the two groups. Here’s a joke I completely adore that I think is perfect MG humor, though it works for all ages: A snail, attacked by two tortoises, is unable to describe the incident to the police. “It happened so fast!” it says.

No sarcasm, no irony. We pity the poor, benighted snail even while laughing at its predicament.

By contrast, the saying, “Life is short and then you die,” is packed with irony and, I think, goes to the YA sweet-sour spot. I just googled “ironic jokes,” and some of the ones I found work to my ear, like this one: “I didn’t say it was your fault, I said I was blaming you.” Some are just nasty and unpleasant–I’d stay away from those.

There’s a marvelous, very old (1939) romcom called Ninotchka, directed by the legendary Ernst Lubitsch. The female lead, played by Greta Garbo, is a super-serious Soviet emissary of some sort. The male lead, played by Melvyn Douglas, tries to get her to laugh and fails utterly until he takes a pratfall. When he goes down, she laughs her head off. In my opinion, his spill is MG humor, and his humiliation at falling is YA.

Of course, these are gross generalizations. Some younger kids appreciate sarcasm and irony, and some teens continue to prefer slapstick and lighthearted humor.

But the message is that we can go dark and still be funny for the YA crowd. Black humor abounds in tragedy. Let’s look at a couple of examples from Shakespeare:

∙ Hamlet’s father comes back as a ghost, asking his son to avenge his murder. Dad is dead, but at last he’s confiding in his son. Mom conspired to kill him, but see how pretty she is when she smiles at Claudius. Hard not to be happy for her.

∙ Romeo and Juliet are both dead at the end, but some other people never find true love. Aren’t they really the ones to be pitied?

That was fun!

(Shakespeare does usually lighten his tragedies with comic interludes, but these are carried by minor characters, not the principals.)

Let’s darken a different fairy tale than “Snow White” so we don’t mess with Raina’s plot. Cinderella marries her prince and on her wedding night finds out he’s a vampire. She should have noticed his eager expression when one of the stepsisters cut off her heel to squeeze into the glass slipper (I don’t think this is in the Disney version). After she’s a vampire, too, Cinderella decides to get revenge on her stepfamily. She showers them with jewels and invites them to live at the castle. But sweet Cinderella still lives inside the vampire, and her two natures are constantly at war. Meanwhile the stepfamily members are as awful as ever. Everyone in the castle is vampiric. Cinderella goes back and forth between feeling she should protect them and maybe just scare them a little and remembering how beastly they were to her. I think this can be both funny and compelling.

Now let’s examine dark humor. Something has to really be at stake. If we’re talking about the premise of a novel or a story, what’s at stake has to be important: a relationship, a life, a way of life. Whatever.

If we want to illuminate a dark story with humor, one way to get there is with an MC who sees the funny side of things, whether she wants to or not. We’re not lightening our story. What’s bad continues to be bad. For example:

∙ Our MC is on a spaceship with mechanical difficulties. The likelihood of survival is slim. She can still have funny thoughts: death just when she’s figured out how to brush her teeth without getting toothpaste all over her forehead.

∙ She’s on planet earth. The love of her life breaks up with her. She still cares about him and decides to set him up with the perfect person for him. She even thinks, What can go wrong?

∙ I’m on my train home, as I often am when I write the blog. I imagine the conductor falling asleep and somehow (I don’t know what conducting a train involves) making the train go faster and faster. People are flying about the train car. I’m wedging myself under the seats because I’m small enough to do that. I hope no one’s been killed. I wonder if I’ll survive–and also wonder if we’re going faster than the bullet train in some parts of the world. Are we breaking any records? I hope we are! I hope the famous black box is getting it. We may die, but we’re making a contribution to humanity, and isn’t that what everybody wants, for their life to have meaning?

You may not be rolling in the aisles, but you see the humor. It’s all in the perspective of the character. Doesn’t have to be the MC, can be a secondary character or more than one.

Here are four prompts:

∙ Try “Cinderella with Vampires.” Cinderella doesn’t have to be the only character with a sense of humor. The prince can have one, too. So can some of the castle vampires and a stepsister.

∙ Try any of my tragicomic ideas above, including, if you dare, a re-envisioning of a Shakespearian tragedy to make it funnier but still sad.

∙ Write a scene between siblings. One is ten and the other sixteen. Somebody in the family is gravely ill. Show how the middle grade child and the young adult approach a serious situation. Make both of them seek relief in humor. Show how they do it.

∙ The most troubling fairy tale I know is “Hansel and Gretel,” since child abandonment sets off the story. Try your hand at a darkly humorous retelling for the YA crowd.

Have fun, and save what you write!

More Than You Know

On June 23, 2018, Samantha wrote, People always say “Make your characters feel pain!” In general I agree with this. Your character has to suffer throughout your story or it will be flat out boring…but how do you make his/her suffering unique? I’ve also heard that you should write about what you know, do you agree with this? And if you think that is good advice, do you have suggestions of how to stretch my knowledge and experiences to 1) sound unique/less boring and 2) not completely copy my life?

Lots of you flowed in to help.

Song4myKing: About pain. I think readers will care more about a character whose suffering seems in some way like their own, than about a character whose trouble is so far out there that they can’t really imagine it. If a character loses her best friend, it could strike a closer chord than if she is the only one in her town to survive a bombing. Not that you can’t use the bombing. But if you want the reader to care about the character’s loss and not just about her new plot challenges, you’ll have to narrow her grief down to one lost person at a time. Then make THAT person, and THAT pain become as real as possible.

Probably the key to making the character’s suffering unique is to make sure the people and things involved are 3D and unique. I talked about loss of a loved one as an example; that may be a common theme, but it becomes unique if the one gone and the one left are both well-rounded and their relationship was unique to them. Things like fears are the same way–if the character isn’t flat, and the fears have a believable basis, the suffering it causes will be just as interesting.

But whatever you do, don’t make the suffering random. Don’t kill the dog just to make the readers cry. They won’t. They’ll just be mad at you unless you have a very good reason. Think what in your story could naturally cause pain, then milk it for all it’s worth.

About writing what you know. I try not to write about things in the real world that I know nothing about. I probably will never write a story that has a public school as a major setting, because the school I went to was a very small church school. But I might sometime write about a homeschooler even though I was never homeschooled. I can more easily imagine what it would be like, because several of my siblings homeschooled for a year or two, and so did a number of my friends.

But notice I said “real world.” In the real world, someone will call your bluff if you really didn’t know what you were talking about. But in a made-up world, you are the creator, and you have the opportunity to get to know your world better than anyone else knows it.

And don’t forget that you CAN stretch your knowledge and experiences, even turning them into something a little different. I can’t really wrap my mind around the idea of losing my parents, but I did write a story that included that. I remembered the pain of losing my grandfather, and I put that pain into the story.

Christie V Powell: Well, suffering is tied to both fear and pain, so what does your character fear? What hurts them? That’ll be different for different people. Put me on a crowded dance floor with music so loud it hurts your ears–to some, that’s fun, but to me it would be suffering. I was watching a movie recently where a baby was rushed to the hospital. Everyone else enjoyed it, but I have experiences that made watching it painful. So experience will color the suffering too.

Real people are more complex than characters. Even if you were writing a memoir, your character self would not be a carbon copy. In some ways, all of your characters are based off of you and things you’ve experienced. My character Keita Sage is an introvert like me, but I also identify with antagonist Donovan’s desire take control and simplify government. Some of my real-life experiences got twisted into fiction: I once euthanized a baby chick that was born with fatal problems. It was a shocking, traumatizing experience. I twisted it into my first book, when Keita charges into battle and accidentally kills someone. In the final chapter, she discusses her complicated feelings about a gray character who did terrible things, yet she still cares for him as a person. It came straight from my feelings about one of my good friends from high school being arrested. You’re a unique human being. You’ve had different experiences than everyone else. That will come through.

In high fantasy, the whole world might be at stake. However, I just read and loved “The Losers Club” by Andrew Clements, and the only thing at stake is the main character’s summer vacation and maybe his friendship with a girl. It’s based on a realistic 6th grade bookworm. His character wasn’t really unique–he reminded me a lot of myself.

Maggie R.: So then, do you think that I can still get the reader to feel sad if it’s like ten people who die? Is it too many people do you think? Maybe I could give instances where they are each given a personality. What do you think?

Herolass: It depends on who the people are who die and how they die. If ten unnamed soldiers die in a battle I will not be too sad, but if those soldiers are all friends who died to save someone (e.g. the MC or another important character), I will be very sad.

Raina: I once heard somebody say that when writing tragedy, you should focus on the small things. Instead of writing about the horrors of war, write about a child’s burnt socks lying by the side of the road. If you want a good example, watch Les Miserables. A dozen people dying violently in a battle isn’t nearly as sad as the scene where Fantine gets arrested. (For me, at least.)

Also, I tend to find that tragedy/death feels sadder when the reader/story has some “quiet time” for it to really sink in, instead of a big action scene where the reader’s (and characters’) adrenaline is probably rushing. If you look at Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat beat sheet, the ALL IS LOST moment is usually a big dramatic (and action-packed if you’re in one of the more action-oriented genres) scene where something major happens, while the DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL moment is more internal conflict, where there’s not necessarily a lot going on outside but the MC is struggling inside.

Song4myKing; They might not all need to be named, and have personality shown, but if a few of them are in some poignant way, we’ll get it. We’ll understand that they were all people, not just pawns.

Wow! You guys are fabulous! I agree with everything!

As I’m thinking about this, I’m guessing that we can even make readers care about aggregates of lives lost–though I’ve never attempted it. I think the burnt socks at the side of the road is super effective, but we can also be cerebral about death statistics. One of the reasons, I think, that people continue to care about the Holocaust is the sheer enormity of Jewish deaths: six million. Statistics have power. We can compare the death toll to other death tolls. I haven’t done this, so I’m making up statistics: Jewish deaths in the Holocaust compared to deaths in our Civil War, compared to deaths from cholera, compared to deaths from malnutrition. (I don’t know how any of these would come out.) We might look at innovations by population and speculate how many advances all of humanity was deprived of by the losses. In real life, I have thought along these lines. Naturally, in our fiction, we would stack the deck–make comparisons that point up the magnitude of the tragedy. And then, to bring it all home, we can show the effects of realizing the seriousness of the event on our beloved MC.

Suppose our MC’s tribe loses a battle with the gnomes of Mount Pothinay, and only three out of a thousand soldiers survive. Our MC reacts with shock and deep depression. She thinks of the impact on the tribe going forward. She listens in on the survivors’ descriptions of the debacle. They supply the detail that everyone above talked about. We may not know any of these characters well–either the dead or the living–but their stories will affect our MC and through her, our readers.

Underlying all this, of course, is emotion. We have to connect the deaths of the few or the many with a feeling response. If we set it up right, we can do it. Writers have super powers!

On to writing what we know or what we didn’t (past tense) know. As I’ve said here, my WIP is a historical novel about the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492. I knew little when I started. Many learned tomes later, I’m, if not an expert, at least a knowledgeable amateur, and, finally, I’m starting to feel comfortable moving around in this long-ago world, which may be more different from our own than any of the fantasy universes I’ve created, not withstanding dragons, fairies, and elves. For example, cities had their own fueros, charters of rights granted by the monarch. But the king (and occasionally the queen) could–and did–change his mind any old time. If a subject didn’t like something, he could appeal to the king, and the king might act in his favor. But when another objection came along, he might reverse himself. A subject could depend on nothing! For most of the medieval period, the Jews had their own courts, but if a Jew was unhappy about a judgment, he could move on to the Christian courts and hope for a better outcome. I’ve never thought about introducing such chaos–but I might in a future fantasy, because, in addition to writing what we know, we can write what we’ve learned.

My book, The Wish, is set in the eighth grade. When I wrote it, junior high (no middle schools then) was decades in the past, and, due to a special program in New York City at the time, I skipped eighth grade. So I spent a day with an eighth grade class and talked to the kids. When I wrote The Two Princesses of Bamarre, I needed the help of my shy friends to get Addie right, since I’m an extrovert–but being an extrovert didn’t stop me from writing her.

We may have to step outside ourselves to write what we don’t know, but plenty of resources are available. For this historical novel, in addition to reading academic books, I’ve googled countless things. I had a long phone conversation about boats with an expert at the South Street Seaport in New York City. I’ve reached out to scholars specializing in the Middle Ages on the Iberian Peninsula. No one has been unwilling to help.

(For any of you who are using Wikipedia for research, I’ve found the references at the bottom of the article to be enormously helpful. Some link to other online resources and some to books that go into the topic, whatever it is, in geeky depth.)

One of the charms of writing what we don’t know is that we build bridges to what we do. In the case of the expulsion of the Jews, not all the discoveries have been happy. Prejudice then and prejudice now, if not exactly the same, resemble each other.

I encourage writers to write what we don’t know. We get bigger.

And I don’t want you readers of this blog to limit your ambitions. Whatever you want to do in your writing, I say, go for it!

In the case of writing about the late fifteenth century, I can’t get it entirely right, and not merely because records are spotty. For one thing, I don’t have twenty years for this one book, the time it would take to truly know the period. For another, the way events unfolded then has convinced me that people at the time were in some respects fundamentally different from twenty-first century humanity: the sense of self was less individuated; the stories folks tell themselves about their lives has changed; and the relation of self to society has shifted. I’m hoping to write characters who aren’t exactly like us, just dressed up in gowns or doublets and hose. But if I manage to represent them as they would recognize themselves, they may not be comprehensible to modern readers. I’m looking for a middle ground. We can’t entirely get away from what we know.

This extends to all kinds of writing. My shy Addie is unlikely to reflect everyone’s experiences of being shy. Whether we write what we know or what we learn, our words won’t precisely match what our readers know. This is all to the good. How dull it would be otherwise!

Here are three prompts:

∙ Take the defeat against the gnomes of Mount Pothinay when only three out of a thousand survive. 997 people have been killed. Resist the urge to make any of them individuals. Write a scene, and make the reader sad.

∙ Research a historical defeat. Make yourself care, and then, using your research, write a scene and make the reader care. For this, Wikipedia and Google are your friends, but you can also interview people you know who may be veterans or may have been in any kind of physical fight.

∙ Take a tall tale or a myth about an out-size individual. Make that person believable. Adapt the story. Write it all or a scene.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Idea-ology

On June 4, 2018, Writeforfun wrote, I’m desperate! How do you come up with new book ideas?

I accidentally killed my computer four weeks ago and lost all of my files…and hadn’t backed them up for the past two years (yes, I know, you’re supposed to back your computer up way more often than that, but I’m a chronic procrastinator, so I never got around to it). I lost everything I’ve written for the past two years, which includes two novels I had halfway finished and the two previous novels that I was working on revising. I can’t stand the thought of starting over on that stuff, at least not for a good long while, but I’m dying to start writing again.

I’m trying to think of a fresh new idea to move onto, but coming up with an idea that I can really get into is proving impossible. I have dozens and dozens of story ideas that I’ve come up with over time, but only a few have piqued my interest in just the right ways to get me obsessed enough with them to write them (that’s pretty much the only way I can write something – if it intrigues me in just the right way that I can’t stop thinking about it and I crave a chances to sit down and write more of it!).

Right now I have one idea that has really sparked my interest, but, alas, it is a fanfiction, spawned off a backstory that an author never wrote; I love it, but I can’t stand writing fanfiction and I can’t figure out a way to convert it into something original – I’m afraid it wouldn’t work in any other world.

Anyway, I was just wondering if anyone has any ideas for how to come up with…ideas?

HeroLass wrote back, One of the ways I come up with ideas is to go for a walk, nature inspires me and when I walk I let my mind wander.

Another way is to look at everyday objects and go what if…? (‘What if’ solves many of my lack of idea problems.)

And Melissa Mead wrote, Can you tease out the core of what you love about the fanfiction, change everything else, and write that?

There is actually a book called What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter (high school and up, I think), which is a great resource for idea generation. So that’s one source we can all turn to.

I am backed up in multiple ways, and, except for my little memory chip, all of them are managed by my techie husband. If not for him, I’m sure I would be or would have been in Writeforfun’s boat more than once. I’m very sorry this happened to you!

I’m with HeroLass on the usefulness of activities that let our minds wander. Walks, showers, repetitive and mindless activities can be potent sources of ideas. In my experience these work best if they’re preceded by intense though unsuccessful brain cudgeling. After that kind of effort–which may include free-writing, list-making, talking obsessively about the problem with anyone who will listen–the subconscious is primed and, when allowed to roam free, will produce results. This works for major ideas for entire projects and for smaller ones when we get stuck in our WIP.

When I’m on an idea hunt, I often think about the problem just before I go to sleep, and–sometimes–I wake up with the answer. This is another form of the relaxation technique above. It presupposes, as I believe, that our brains really do have answers. The difficulty is finding opening the lock. Sleep is often the key.

It can be useful to keep a pad by the bed and write down our dreams, which otherwise are likely to slip away. Dreams are surreal and unexpected. We can mull them over, write notes about them and lists about where we might take them.

I agree with Melissa Mead about changing the fanfic enough to make it entirely your own. Lists may come in handy here. We can list the elements of the world that seem unique, that we can’t do without–and then list ways we can do without them. We can list the elements of our idea that we love and then list ways to use them in a new, non-derivative story.

One of my chief worries in the year that preceded the publication of Ella Enchanted was that everyone would notice how derivative the book was, how I had stuffed it with all the elements of what I loved about many of the books I’d read. No one ever made that accusation. We may not be copying someone else even when we think we are.

We can list our obsessions. What do we care about? What has been an interest through our entire life? For each item on our list, we can start a new list of ways to use that interest in a story. For example, suppose we’re fascinated by trees. What can we do with that? Dryads? The secret lives of roots?

I’m finally writing about the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, a subject I’ve been curious about for years. I keep finding books (unread until now) about the subject on my bookshelves. My subconscious was preparing me. I bet yours is, too.

As most of you know, fairy tales are a major source of inspiration for me, but not all of them open to me quickly. There are several on the back burner that I hope to get to eventually: “Rumpelstiltskin,” “East of the Sun, West of the Moon,” “Aladdin,” to name a few. When I think of something that may, finally, allow me to move into actual writing, I type it into my ideas page for that story.

And I keep a running list of ideas that I may be able to work with in the future. I’ll probably never get to many of them, because new ones continue to come along, but when I’m preparing to start a new project I always go back to my list. I’d encourage everyone to keep such a list, and, if we’re in danger of losing it in a computer disaster, print it out periodically or keep it longhand in a notebook.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Pick a book you’ve loved that was published in the last few years, definitely still copy protected, and use it as the basis for a list of ideas you can spin off to make your own original story. Pick one and start writing.

∙ The following is one of my dreams, which I put in a poem. I offer it to you to change any way you like if it seems to have story possibilities: I knew that if I ate the shrimp I would turn transparent. I didn’t serve myself any, but they were on my plate anyway. That’s all I remembered when I woke up. Do I eat the shrimp? Who wants me to be transparent? Is being transparent the same as being invisible?

∙ The genies in Aladdin interest me. How do they grant wishes? Where does their power come from? What’s their relationship with the evil magician? Write a list of genie story possibilities. If one grabs you, write the story.

Have fun, and save what you write!