Spy Thrilling

On July 19, 2021, Kit Kat Kitty wrote, Does anyone have any advice about how to nail down what you want the plot of your story to be? I’ve been wanting to write a Spy Thriller for a really long time, (since about November 2019). I started the first draft for NaNoWriMo, but gave up and moved onto different projects (as evidence in this post). Recently, I had another idea for one, which would take place in the same world and country but involve a different main character and take place a few years before the one I started in 2019. However, I’m having a lot of issues deciding what I actually want to happen. I really like espionage, fun action scenes, secrets, dark pasts, many things that are staples of the genre. But every time I try to say “This is who my main character is, this is her main motivation…” It all feels wrong. I’ve tried making lists but I feel overwhelmed by the possibilities.

Christie V Powell wrote back, You might try Brandon Sanderson’s method. He starts by writing down a couple of the goals for the plots and subplots that he wants (character A learns to trust, the villain is defeated, this element of the magic world is discovered…). Then he writes down what steps would be needed to reach each one (so, for “learns to trust,” he might list character A mistrusted someone but was wrong, A is taught a lesson by someone, A likes someone but is held back by her mistrust…). Then, as he writes, he looks at his lists and tries out what comes next. You might try that with your list (espionage can be what secret your character has to discover, the action scenes can be how to bring down the villain, etc.).

I actually don’t do lists right. I usually only get to item three or four, and then my brain latches on to one and decides that This Is The Way. Sometimes I can get a few more on the list by building off of the previous ideas instead of coming up with new ones–for example, if idea #3 is “Perrin meets two mages,” then idea #4 might be “Perrin meets two mages who help heal his friend” or “the two mages have ulterior motives.” I think I would get overwhelmed by possibilities too if I forced myself to keep listing all brand new things. Maybe you could try out building on old ideas instead of coming up with new ones?

When I’m coming up with a new story idea, I start by scribbling down some of the things that I’d like to include. Then I use those ideas to fill out a “beat sheet”, moving them around from spot to spot and filling in new things until it feels right. I wrote a blog post about the story structure/beat sheet I use, if you’re interested: http://atypicallyordinary.blogspot.com/2021/06/story-structure-for-kids-and-other.html.


I’ve made no secret about having a hard time with plotting, even though plot interests me more than anything else. My plot handicap is why I lean so hard on fairytales and myths and, lately, history, which help me not only with my story shape but also with unexpected tidbits that suggest plot directions. Providentially, I’m right now figuring out the plot of my murder mystery that takes place in thirteenth century England and I can give you an example from recent reading:

Fact #1: The murdered woman, who is historical, had a powerful and influential son.

Fact #2: The son lived in a different city from hers.

Fact #3: Little was done to find her killer.

Fact #4: It was easy to escape from jail and hide out in dense forest.

Fact #5: The prime suspect did escape and fled.

Fact #6: Travel, unsurprisingly, was dangerous. (Think bands of evil Robin Hoods.)

I haven’t written anything yet, but my plot as I had imagined it before my most recent research was a bit too straightforward. Now, though I’ll have to find out more, I hope to make my two MCs travel through this scary countryside to reach the powerful and influential son. Without research, I wouldn’t have thought of this promising plot twist.

Out of curiosity, I googled “real-life spies” and found lots of entries. One of them was this: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_American_spies, though it may not be the most useful. We can click on a few and noodle around the websites, jotting down discoveries that interest us. In the Wikipedia list, we can click on some spies and read about them. We can sample spies in different eras and see what changes.

In this stage, we can think of ourselves as tourists, lingering here, sampling this war or that crisis, this country or that one. It’s important not to worry. We’re picking flower buds of possibilities. If we’re relaxed about it, the flower buds will drift around. In the backs of our minds, some will make patterns, break apart, and reform. This sounds fanciful, but our creative selves need space where desperation is not allowed.

Later, when we arrange them in our story bouquet, we can figure out where they go. Some may reveal themselves as weeds. Some may bloom with surprising colors and vivid perfumes.

The process is likely to continue as we write. We’re stuck in Chapter Six until we remember a particular factoid we read about a spy in the Franco-Prussian War and a different one from the Cold War. (I’m assuming this will be a fantasy spy thriller since Kit Kat Kitty mentioned the “world” of her story. If we’re writing strictly historical fiction, we’ll have to be more rigorous, and we won’t be able to hop around in time much, but we’ll still need our relaxed tourist experience.)

As we do our time travel, we can speculate in a writerly way. What kind of person did this particular spy have to be to accomplish what she did? There may be several possibilities, which we can list. What might have stood in her way? What stood in the way of a different spy that we looked at that we can plug in? I’m thinking not only of personality but also of physicality. For example, did she have asthma before there were inhalers? Does she have any identifying features? For instance, I would have a hard time getting through a dragnet because of my height.

I love to look at online images, although, usually, after the first four or so, they tend to switch to other people. I don’t care much if I’m not writing real historical fiction. What kind of person would wear this expression? What might have happened to this one to cause those frown lines?

When we’re ready—we can even declare a set time period for our touring, say a month—we can write notes about what we’ve learned. Still in relaxed mode, we can speculate about how we can use it. Gradually, our story is likely to take shape.

I don’t mean it’s easy. This is the part I dislike most. But this is the best way I’ve found to get through it.

The great thing about historical research over spy novels and movies is that we don’t have to worry about infringing on anyone else’s creation. History happened. No one told President Truman, for instance, to make up his mind to drop the atomic bombs because the war’s historical moment was taking too long to conclude and the pacing was faltering.

We do, of course, have to be aware of copyright in nonfiction biographies and history books. The authors of these books shape their presentation of facts and people. If we discover something important to our story, we probably want to find more than one source for it. This is one reason I love Wikipedia, because it’s open source, and we can use whatever we like.

Here are three prompts:

  • In medieval England, the punishment for most crimes—really!—was execution. Your MC has been falsely accused of theft and convicted, but she’s escaped from prison in the tower of the local lord’s castle. She’s following a narrow track through the woods on the outskirts of town when a large person drops down from a tree onto the path ahead of her. Write what happens. If you like, keep going and write the story.
  • Your MC is an executive at a manufacturer of teakettles where the factory workers are trying to form a union and the owner is using aggressive tactics to stop them. Secretly, your MC sympathizes with the laborers and wants to help them even though the repercussions will be severe if he’s caught. Write the story.
  • In this world, a small percentage of the population has the power to time travel. An even smaller bunch has formed a cabal to return to the past, where (when?) they plan to install their leader as prime minister. His policies will be disastrous for everyone except the members of his cabal. Your MC has infiltrated the group and is determined to make them fail. The problem is that she also shapeshifts. The shifts are set off by time travel, and she never knows what form she’ll have taken when she arrives. Write the story.

Have fun and save what you write!

Down With The Tribunal!

On July 8, 2021, FantasyFan101 wrote, Whenever I start a WIP, I make the first chapters as perfect as I can, the way I’d like to see them when they’re published. I constantly go over the first chapters for flaws instead of moving on. I feel like I should start with drafts, but that’s not really the way I write. I have a pretty good idea of what I want to do, but I’m not quite sure exactly how to go about it. Do I make a quick list of scenes, then write out the actions a little, then slowly expand more and more, or just write a quick and, if I may, crappy rough draft?

A conversation broke out.

Erica: It just depends on what you want to do. Every writer writes differently. There are a lot of posts on outlining vs pantsing you can check out if you want to.

On a slightly more helpful note, if you keep wanting to try and perfect the first chapter, don’t break up your WIP into chapters until you’ve finished the first draft. You could also try making yourself write a certain amount of new story before you can go back and edit.

For me, going back and revising an earlier part of the story means I’m stuck on something and I’m trying to get unstuck. Keep an eye on what makes you want to stop writing, and then you can figure out how to get past that.

Katie W.: If you have a pretty good idea of what you want to do, the first step I would recommend would be writing out the idea as fully as you can, to give you a better idea of what exactly this story is going to look like. Once you have that, though, it’s every writer for themselves trying to figure out how to develop the thing. I’m helping with a project someone did where they wrote out a list of scenes and then expanded them, but I myself am the kind of writer who HAS to write a story straight through from beginning to end, because I keep coming up with things that send the story into a completely different direction. My advice would be to try super-detailed outlining first, and then decrease the complexity as you need to until you find a level of planning that works for you. But it’s really just experimenting until you find the system that works for you.

Christie V Powell: You might try the NaNoWriMo style, just as an exercise. You set yourself a goal number of words (the official NaNo in November is 50k words in a month, but you can set something else), and then throw words down.

Editing is not allowed. Instead, I write myself notes about things I would like to change, and then keep going, usually with a hashtag so I can find it easily later (“Her large eyes studied her brother’s family with an expression Indra couldn’t read. #end scene with focus on Indra”).

Sometimes I stop and stream-of-conscious brainstorm right on the page (“This isn’t working. How can I try something new?”). Other times, I’ll write a paragraph about what I want the next chapter to do before I write it (“Indra speaks with Marenna, who frets that she could have helped, but does not admit her special ability yet”). Even those words count toward the goal.

I don’t know if this ends up being your go-to method, but it might be worth a try.

I agree with all of these!

Christie V Powell’s suggestion of writing NaNoWriMo style is likely to be freeing. An even more drastic idea is to tape paper across your screen so you can’t see what you have written and can concentrate only on what you are writing this second. If the stress rises, you can crack your knuckles, stare out your window, walk around your room—and then get back to it, still without looking.

The beginning is probably the ficklest, most changeable part in our story. Even if we write detailed outlines before we commit a word to a first draft, we are highly likely to revise our first chapter in the course of a final draft. I could be wrong about this, but I would bet fairly good money that one of the most famous first lines in literature was revised before it appeared in print. I’d go further and bet slightly less good money that the sentence was unrecognizable or not there at all in the first draft. I’m thinking of Dickens’ “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” Unless he was a different and higher species than the one I belong to, he couldn’t have known how to characterize the times until he’d developed his story. However, someone in the blogosphere may know the truth about Dickens’ process. If you do, please enlighten me.

It isn’t only that we don’t know our story and our characters well enough, we also can’t yet see the best way to introduce them.

To not worry about beginnings is one of the first lessons I learned in the writing class that most fundamentally shaped me as a writer, where I was one of the few newbie fish in a school of seasoned pros. My classmates said that we often put in our first chapter background information that only we need to know and the reader doesn’t—or we plunge our poor readers into story water so deep that they drown before they can figure out what’s going on. These are problems we can’t fix until we’ve gotten to the end.

I also love Erica’s sly suggestion to make our whole first draft one continuous chapter so we don’t feel the urge to perfect it until we’re done.

If we’re all like me and love polishing best of all, we will have more delight if we leave it to the end. We can remind ourselves of that as we soldier on.

In her marvelous book on writing, Bird by Bird (high school and up), Anne Lamott says, “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people.” She is the champion of lousy first drafts, without which she (me too!) believes one cannot achieve successful final drafts.

Every night, my husband and I cuddle and play e-solitaire collaboratively. When the game sends us hard game after hard game, I say that The Tribunal is punishing us. When we waste moves, I say the members of The Tribunal are laughing at us. There can be an imaginary Tribunal because the version of solitaire we use is opaque. Nowhere is the best achievable score for a game revealed—so we could really find out if The Tribunal has reason to laugh. We can’t discover how the game rotation works, either, to know if The Tribunal actually is sending us a string of tough challenges.

The Tribunal is a funny idea when applied to solitaire. It’s no fun at all if it sits judgment on our writing. There’s more to this analogy: measures of writing quality are as unknown as solitaire’s metrics. No one agrees about what a perfect story or a perfect sentence or even a perfect word in a sentence is. It is a crippling strategy to invent The Tribunal to judge our work, spectrally gathered around us while we’re calling forth our fragile, creative selves.

The For Fun! sign I suggested in an earlier post may be useful here. We can tape it all over—because The Tribunal never brings fun to the party. There are other saying we can make up and write in in colored markers or embroider into our pillowcases. We can make a list:

  • Shakespeare loved lousy first drafts, and he got it from Chaucer.
  • No one will ever see this unless I say so.
  • Revision is the cherry on top of a finished story.
  • Evil judge, if you’re peering over my shoulder, come out where I can see you.

First prompt: Write three more sayings.

Here are two more prompts:

  • Write a day in the life of a member of The Tribunal.
  • Write a day in the life of a resident of the city ruled by The Tribunal, where punishments for lawbreaking are harsh and no one knows what the laws are.

Have fun and save what you write!

Hi, Pal, I’m Water!

On June 5, 2021, Fantasywriter6 wrote, What is the best way to have a form of nature communicate with people? The sort of magic that my MC has is that she can speak to water. I want the water to have a definite personality, but I don’t know how whether to show that personality by having it “speak” back to my MC or simply by what it does and describing the water from her point of view (what she understands about it). The “water-speaking” is telepathic; she doesn’t just walk up to the ocean and say, “Hey, what’s up, Ocean?” But should I write the water responding in (telepathic) words or a feeling that she gets or just what the water decides to do?

Three of you wrote back

Katie W.: Sounds like a group in one of my stories that I call water-dancers. Water carries images from where it’s been, and when the water-dancers touch it, the images appear in their minds. Sometimes with sounds, sometimes not, depending on the circumstances. Which images they get are fairly touch-and-go, but if they focus on a specific thing they want to know about (like how far away someone/something is) they can usually get an answer. So the image transfer goes both ways, to the point where they can control the water by picturing what they want it to do, although how much water they can control depends on the dancer. The most powerful can also receive prophecies, but I haven’t figured out how that would work yet.

Long story short, my MC can both send and receive mental (it doesn’t appear in her reflection or anything like that) images from water.

i  writing: I feel like, if you want the water to have a personality, you should have it reply in telepathic words.

Kyryiann: I have a book where the MC talks to dolphins. The dolphins have different personalities, but they don’t use words. Instead, they send her images and feelings telepathically.

At the time, I wrote that Fantasywriter6’s question touches on worldbuilding.

There isn’t a “best” way for a part of nature to communicate with people, or a best way to do almost anything in writing. The story itself, its problem, can help us figure out what we can use in most cases. This goes for worldbuilding in general. We create the world our story needs—except for the embellishments we may throw in for fun, but not too many because we don’t want to overload or distract our readers.

For example, I figure Fantasywriter6’s MC’s power and water itself are integral to the plot. Is there a drought? Floods? Are wells being poisoned? Are fish—or mermaids—getting sick? Is water distressed over whichever it may be? Or is water angry and creating the problem? Is water mad at the MC in particular?

There are so many questions. Can water decide it doesn’t want to communicate, because its feelings were hurt or it’s annoyed or the equivalent of its throat is sore? Does water have a personality?

Can water express itself clearly? Dogs, for instance, can’t tell us what hurts, which is maddening, especially since they’re good at communicating that something does. And good at expressing many needs. Water could be sort of like dogs.

Let’s imagine that the well that waters the king’s castle has been poisoned and the water doesn’t want anyone to get sick. Our MC is a kitchen maid and has to fetch water for cooking. Unaware of the poisoning, she telepathically chirps to the well water about what beautiful weather they’re having. How does the water communicate about the poisoning? It’s easy if the water can speak telepathically (in the language of the MC or in the language of water, in which our MC is fluent). Since that’s easy, let’s put it to the side and make a list of other possibilities. How else might the well let our MC know something is amiss?

  • Water rises out of the well and splashes her.
  • The water makes itself freeze so that she hears a clank and her bucket comes back empty.
  • Steam rises that smells like sulfur.

Of course, the water does whatever it does only because our MC has the power to connect with it. Anyone else would get seriously dangerous water.

Your turn for an early prompt. Think of five more possible ways the water can express itself. (The reason for five is that they may not be easy to think of. When your brain feels squeezed, it is likely to send some silly ideas and some that will surprise you and yield unexpected possibilities. If five come right away, go for five or ten more. Brain squeeze is good.)

Suppose we pick the splashing. We don’t have to explain everything. We don’t need to tell the reader that the well water, say, gathered itself and created its own version of a basketball player’s musculature so that it could make the water zoom up, because then we’d have to explain how it knew about muscles and basketball, and it would never end, and our story would, so to speak, dissolve. Instead, we can just show the splash and our MC’s reaction when a tiny drop (too little to hurt her) lands on her tongue and tastes sour.

In the process, we’ve advanced our plot with the poisoning. We’ve expanded our worldbuilding because we’ve discovered how water communicates. And we’ve learned a little about the benevolence of water, or at least of the water in this particular well. Plot, worldbuilding, character. And setting comes into it too: the castle and well water rather than water piped in from a reservoir. Not bad!

Here are three more prompts:

  • You were expecting this. Write the story of the poisoned well.
  • Write a story about an MC or a villain who is a cloud persuader.
  • A civil war is in progress, and your MC or your villain has the power to combine and separate. Write the story.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Self Help

On April 23, 2021, Fantasywriter6 wrote, What are some ways that y’all would suggest to improve writing technique? Aside from writing all the time, obviously. How can I learn to make my language, mood, and overall technique better? (If this is a dumb question, and the answer is just “you have it or you don’t,” then sorry!:) I just have recently read a work done by a peer, and, I mean, I generally think that my language is pretty good, but when I read her work- even just aside from the plot and characters, her language, pacing, and overall voice were phenomenal. I’d like to get better at all of that!

A discussion followed.

Me: Not a dumb question! I’m adding it to my list. In the meanwhile, if you’re thinking about language, I’d suggest you read Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style, a very old book, which came out in a new edition last year. I used to lick the elegant sentences off the page!

FantasyFan101: I know how you feel. My friend’s writing is, as you say, phenomenal. I’d just say, think about yourself. What do you sound like in your head? Smart, curious, happy, sad etc.? If you’re doing close focus 3rd POV, my favorite, make your voice sound like the character’s personality. My friend from above has a character that is very resentful and has had a lot of loss, and the story definitely revolves a lot around that when she’s writing. It makes her romance especially hard, because she doesn’t want to possibly lose another loved one. She tries to keep herself cold and cut off from any possible friendships. The voice of the story always has to do with the characters involved. Technique, I don’t know. It’s your story, so write it as you want. The mood also depends on what your characters are feeling. If they’re happy, describe everything brightly and joyfully. Sad, you know what to do.

Katie W.: I’ve found that analyzing things you really like can be quite helpful. Not just “Oh, that’s really good,” but “What is it about this story that appeals to me? Which techniques does the author use to create this effect?” Once you have those answers, you can look for a way to incorporate that into your writing. You can also absorb those things by osmosis, but it takes longer and the process is harder to put into words. If you can manage it, I would suggest asking the peer you admire how she got to be so good and see if she might have any tips. But analyzing and osmosis work, too.

Christie V Powell: It’s definitely something you can learn, not something you have or don’t. In addition to Strunk & White, may I recommend Writing Tools by Roy Peter Clark? It’s another excellent book that talks about the little ways you can play with language to make it work for your story.

And, of course, read a lot! I usually get so involved in reading stories that I don’t pick apart details as I go (except sometimes some big picture things like plot structure points), but even if it’s by osmosis, you’ll pick up a greater vocabulary and greater mastery of word usage.

Just saying, comparisons with a peer may be unreliable. We are hard on ourselves! I started wondering (ignoring the timelines of their lives, which overlapped by only one year) if Charlotte Brontë may have thought Jane Austen above her in writing quality. Or vice versa. But if you read the two, the question dissolves because their work is so different in mood, tone, and style. They’re both great.

Having said that, it’s always worthwhile to work at our writing. I’m with Christie V Powell on reading a lot, which makes osmosis happen.

I’m also a fan of close analysis of what’s going on in prose I admire. A minute ago I looked at the beginning of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (high school and up). The first paragraph is one long sentence after another until the penultimate one, which is just eight words: Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope. The shortness packs a punch.

On a technical level, I see how effective sentence variety can be. Fitzgerald also changes things up with a dash in an earlier sentence. We can include a question or two or an exclamation. Even a colon followed by a series can wake up a bit of prose.

And isn’t that sentence fascinating? The whole paragraph immerses us in the thoughts of Nick Carraway and sets him up to be a reliable narrator. (Please argue with me if you disagree. I’d love to know your thoughts on this.)

You can find the paragraph online, and you don’t have to be at least in high school to read the excerpt. We can learn from it about jumping into the strangeness of a character’s mind.

I took a look at Christie V Powell’s suggested Writing Tools and read some of the sample Amazon offers. In the beginning, Roy Peter Clark advises writers to start sentences with subject and verb, and he provides examples of the effectiveness of that approach.

I thought, Whoa! What about Shakespeare’s “To Be or Not To Be” speech from Hamlet? I googled it and read it, and the subject and verb are all over the place. To his credit, Clark goes on to include examples that don’t follow his recommendation and that are still terrific. He draws our attention, as mine never had been drawn before, to subject-verb placement and the effects we can achieve. Cool!

I’m attentive to word repetition when I revise. Generally, I don’t want words to repeat in the same sentence or paragraph, sometimes not even in neighboring paragraphs. These include handy little ones like even or just. Sometimes, I’ll recast a sentence to get rid of them because they create a sameness in our prose.

Paragraph length can be varied too. An infrequent one sentence paragraph can heighten a dramatic moment. But this should be used rarely, or there’s the danger of seeming gimmicky.

We can scrutinize our adjectives and adverbs (the weakest parts of speech in English prose) to see if we need them or if we can substitute stronger nouns and verbs for them, like rushed instead of moved quickly. We can bring in detail to show whatever we’re describing, rather than beautiful building, we can show the reader the marble columns, the balcony guard wall decorated with a frieze of dancers—and so on. The reader will glean that this edifice is beautiful.

Then we can zoom out to consider bigger issues. We can consider how an admired author revealed character through dialogue, action, appearance, and, in the case of an MC, thoughts and feelings. We look for consistency. If there’s change, how was it set up?

We can look at plot twists and whether they were both surprising and believable at the same time. If yes, how did the author prepare the reader? What can we learn?

Same approach with setting and worldbuilding. Did they support the story, or were they just window dressing?  I think a little window dressing is okay, since the author is allowed to have fun, but the world and the setting need also to be woven into the story so that the plot doesn’t work without them. We can think about how the author accomplished that. When did the worldbuilding and the setting enter the story? How was it done?

Of course, we’ll pay special attention to the issues that are hardest for us. How does this author accomplish whatever those are (plot for me)?

We can be critical too. Is there anything in the book we’re studying that doesn’t work? What could we do to fix whatever it is? I twitch when I spot a little mistake that could easily have been revised out of existence. Didn’t somebody notice?

The biblical story of Joseph has myriad plot twists. Two of these three prompts pick a twist to fool with, but you can look the story up if you don’t remember the details and choose different ones.

  • Joseph is oddly clueless about the resentment he will cause by revealing to his brothers the dreams that predict they will bow down to him. In your version, he guesses how angry they’ll be and tells only his brother Reuben, the one who is kind to him. Write how Reuben handles the secret and what happens to the story.
  • Without making any changes to the story, write the scene when Joseph tells all his brothers about the dreams. Choose three brothers and Joseph to bring to life during the revelation and what follows. This one and the one above seem to me to be especially character driven.
  • For a ghost story, the Jews fleeing Egypt in the time of Moses break their promise to take Joseph’s bones with them. The ghost is not pleased. Write what happens.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Success Is Dessert

On March 26, 2021, MissMiddle wrote, I was wondering, how many hours do you write per day? I recently read that the most successful authors write for 4+ hours each day. Do you think that’s necessary? I’d love to see a post about how much to write each day and if you already have one it would be great if someone could direct me to it.

At the time I wrote back with this: I’m adding your question to my list, but it will take me a long time to answer. My minimum daily writing time is 2 1/4 hours. I try to go longer and often do, but sometimes I don’t make even my minimum. I don’t think 4+ hours are a necessity, but consistency is important. If you have little time, try carving out at least 15 minutes a day for writing.

I haven’t changed my mind.

Not long ago, I kept failing to make my time goal. Nothing big was going on, just little diversions that I gave in to. I forgave myself, because forgiveness is the bargain I’ve made, and I think it’s a useful and benevolent one for everyone to make. Otherwise, we pile on blame. We think we don’t have the discipline or the talent to be a writer and we stop writing. But forgiveness turns off the self-recrimination spigot. If we forgive ourselves, tomorrow is free and clear, uncluttered.

When I do make my goal, I feel a little shinier than when I don’t. I think that’s okay.

Mine is a time goal rather than words or pages. If I work the contracted time, it doesn’t matter whether the writing went well or horribly. A page or word requirement would add an additional milestone I’d have to meet to get the shine. Some days I mostly write notes about my story or do research (which I count) and I wouldn’t get to, say, two pages in ten hours. I know by now that if I put in the hours, eventually the writing will figure itself out and I’ll finish a book.

There is no fixed length of time one has to write every day to be successful. We don’t even have to write every day. We’re all different. The only imperative is that we write frequently enough to produce stories. How many stories and how often also vary from writer to writer.

Having said that, though, discipline is essential to writing and to getting better as a writer, which we can’t do if we don’t, er, write. When I’m revising, I can keep at it almost endlessly, but when I’m starting a new story or writing notes about it—the hardest part for me—sticking to the work can be torture. Discipline is no problem during the easy phases!

A daily goal of some kind is helpful for the hard parts. We want to establish a habit. If we get used to writing for, say, half an hour a day, the act will become like brushing our teeth, part of what we do, and we’ll feel strange and unlike ourselves when we don’t do it.

But it isn’t enough for me to say, Just pick a goal and make it a habit. In my own experience as a failed visual artist, I know that expressing our creativity is hard. Not being creative, When I googled Why is creativity hard?, I found this lovely quote from Lewis Mumford who wrote The Myth of the Machine: “Anyone who says ‘I don’t have a creative bone in my body’ is seriously underestimating their skeleton.  More to the point, they are drastically undervaluing their brain.”

What’s super difficult is hauling that creativity from our bones out into the world. During my long writing apprenticeship, I made lots of friends among my fellow wannabes, and I watched quite a few give up for one reason or another, but not because they weren’t creative.

Googling led me to an article in Psychology Today called “10 Reasons Why We Struggle With Creativity” by David DiSalvo—but before you google it too, know that I think it’s for high-school-and-above people. Two of the ten reasons jumped out at me. The first sounds discouraging even self-defeating: that we can attain the self-confidence to produce creative work (writing for us) only by failing to produce work we have confidence in.

The secret weapon, though, is that now you know. We have to fail, probably again and again, to succeed in the end. Most of you know that it took me nine years for one of my stories (Ella) to be accepted. And it’s not that everything I write is a success. In every book, I fail myriad times. Right now, working on my memoir, which I think I’ve mentioned, I’m finding it astonishingly hard to make it chronological, as a beta reader has said I must. I keep wandering off on tangents. But by now I do have confidence. Understanding the necessity of failure will let you fortify yourself. We tighten our stomachs and yell into the wind, “This isn’t working. Too bad.” Off we go, trying again or starting that new idea.

The second reason goes with the first, that the failing we must do sets off memories of other failures and a cascade of self-criticism. How can we ever succeed if we’ve already proven ourselves to—fill in the blank: have only stupid ideas, sputter out every time without finishing, write awkward sentence after awkward sentence, be unable to build a world, stink at endings, stink at beginnings? I can go on and on. I bet you can too. We have to fortify ourselves against our excellent memories. We can replace memories with facts. How long did it take the Wright Brothers to figure out flight? How long did medicine stumble before germ theory was discovered? Failure should be embraced!

Here are three prompts:

  • Write for fifteen minutes a day for the next seven days. You can vary the time. If you have to, do it before you go to sleep.
  • Pick an unfinished story of yours and work on it. Doesn’t matter if you fail to improve it. Remind yourself that in the meal of writing (or creativity), failure is the appetizer and entrée; success is dessert.
  • Write about an athlete training for the Olympics. Make the athlete fail the trial. Decide what they make of the failure and do about it. The ending can be triumphant—or not.

Have fun, and save what you write!


On April 6, 2021, StoryBlossom wrote, The process for writing second and third drafts is so confusing. Most of what I’ve read says something like: wait some time, read it, and then wing it.

Do you have any suggestions for planning techniques and how to be consistent with planning so you get it done in a timely manner so you can get to the actual writing? What can I do during the first draft that will make writing future drafts easier without stifling my creativity by overplanning? In other words, can you expand upon, “Too much [writing] is better than too little, because it’s easier to cut than add when we revise?” I’m thinking this might mean writing every single scene idea whether it fits or not, but that would probably mean adding more during the revision process as I try to fit everything together cohesively.

That’s the problem I had when I started editing one of my WIPs. I didn’t plan my first draft at all. That didn’t even occur to me. I planned my second draft using the snowflake method, but the story ended a complete mish-mash mess. The plot was in my head and not executed properly. I tried again with my third draft, going up to 60ish pages, but then I got sick of the story because I’ve been working on it for six years. There was still so much to more to write to complete the plot.

I took a break from writing because I didn’t know what I wanted to write. I also think I was focusing too much on keeping up with my writing goal (which was ridiculously high) because I wanted to finish within three months. How long can it realistically take for a beginner to write a book? Finally, I ran my ideas through a randomizer and tried writing that one.

I tried writing non-chronologically, where I just randomly wrote scenes in no particular order, but that felt even messier and I gave up on that. I’ve moved on to yet another story, which I already had a half first draft written. I read the draft, which was based on the same universe from the first WIP I mentioned and had to scrap most of my ideas. I invented a whole new universe and started writing a new draft. But my perfectionism and need for speed is getting in the way. I don’t know why I have such trouble planning– I am a planner in most other respects. I don’t know why I want to write quickly– I hate rushing in all other respects.

Several of you responded:

Katie W.: What occurs to me is that you might want to write quickly because that seems like the sort of thing a “real writer” would do. Three months is almost ridiculously fast to write a book. If you really work at it, you can get a first draft in, but you won’t have time for editing. (And yes, I know NaNoWriMo people are probably laughing at this.) I did it once, 60,000 words in a semester, but I didn’t finish the actual story and I never wanted to look at the thing again in my entire life.

I think really the issue here is that you haven’t figured out your special kind of planning, and as a die-hard, there’s-no-point-in-even-trying-to-plan-this-because-it’ll-go-off-the-rails-anyway pantster, I can’t help you with that. Reading your comment, my thought was “Oh, yeah. Just start over with whatever idea you have now and see where it takes you. It’s supposed to be messy, so you can clean it up.” My advice would be to read every writing book you can get your hands on and see if something clicks.

Christie V Powell: I agree with Katie W., in that it sounds like you need to figure out your own process and what works best for you. I can tell you mine and give you resources. It works for me, and it’s fast–I can publish at least a book a year, start to finish, with my method. But you’ll want to adapt and eventually make your own.

I started to write down my whole process here, but I don’t want to take up a ton of space, and I’m probably repeating myself from other comments I’ve made. I copied it all down to my own blog post instead, so you can check that out if you’d like: https://atypicallyordinary.blogspot.com/2021/04/my-writing-process.html.

Melissa Mead: FWIW, it took me 14 years to finish my first book. So you don’t need to push yourself TOO hard.

FantasyFan101: My advice for you is just write. Zip. Nada. No more. Just kidding. Often, I find that when I write, I like to just let the ideas flow until my mind is like, whoa, slow down, change this, it’s way better that way. For instance, my current WIP has an MC who still isn’t quite as polished as I’d like, but looking back, her personality and even description fits better into the story. My friend and I also were able to add more details to the world and backstory as the story built up. Now we have not just words on paper, but the seeds of a world. My point is, most of the time your world and story aren’t going to be perfect right away. You’ll get ideas and inspiration the farther along you get. It can help to get to know your world better later in the story. You don’t want to infodump right at the beginning of the story. Things have to start worse before they get better. You have plenty of time. Just relax. Jot down a few ideas. Talk about it with a friend or family member. Have them read it. They might have some eye-opening insight that changes your whole perspective. Readers can have that kind of influence. I wish you luck, from one writer to another.

These are great and helpful. I particularly love Katie W.’s suggestion about reading lots of books on writing. I did that. Books like Bird by Bird by Anne LaMott, Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande, Spider, Spin Me a Web by Lawrence Block, Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, Writing on Both Sides of the Brain by Henriette Anne Klauser, all of which I gobbled up when I was starting out, still stand proud on my shelves. (High school and up.) Every one of these authors is humble about writing and also recognizes that telling a story isn’t as straightforward as following a recipe—because there is no recipe (I wish there was!). Our subconscious always gets involved, creates detours, and wants us to go in unexpected directions. This, I think, is what StoryBlossom is contending with. Has anyone mentioned on this blog that writing is hard?

What helps me is the knowledge that I’ve finished stories a bunch of times, and because of that, I’m relatively, almost entirely confident, that I’ll do it again. I think Christie V Powell has that confidence too and for the same reason. If you follow the link to her blog and read about her method, you’ll see that she welcomes her subconscious in during the daydreaming phase. After that, her tried-and-true method guides her.

But her way won’t work for all of us and probably won’t work entirely or exactly for any of us. It’s like life; even identical twins have paths that diverge, a lot or a little. I looked at the snowflake method, which looks good, but I could follow it only after I finished a book. While I’m writing, I don’t know my characters well enough or see the course they’re going to follow. I find those out during the writing, by showing the details. How will Janey respond to a flat tire? How will Meredith answer a king who asks what she has in her purse? What does she have? Still, I do have an idea of the problem of the book and the ending—or I can’t write it. But some people can.

Knowing the end does keep my first draft from wandering, so that can be a strategy for some writers.

Perfectionism is useful only in the final revision, when plot, setting, and characters are settled. Then we go in and mop up, looking for awkward phrasing, word repetition, typos—like that. Still, we won’t achieve perfection, because, in my opinion, perfection is unattainable. A novel is a long document that has at least one thing wrong with it. As good as we can make it is good enough. Besides, people have different ideas about what we’ve written. A reader may find fault with something that we know is right. Once, a reader wrote to me in considerable distress over the ending of The Two Princesses of Bamarre. She said I had to create a new version that fixed it or write a sequel that fixed it. But the ending was what it should be as far as I was concerned. She said she was losing sleep over it, which was unfortunate for her. It was nice for me, though, that she felt so strongly about my book!

StoryBlossom quotes me about length, but I couldn’t find the spot on the blog, and I wanted to because I’d like to know the context. I’m pretty sure I meant that adding is hard if we get to the end of a story and feel that it isn’t long enough. I doubt I meant that we should pile on scenes. Probably, I was thinking about including enough detail to put the reader inside the action and in the heart and mind of my MC.

Decades ago, I invited some relatives for dinner. No one told me I had to; I wanted to. But then I entirely lost my cool in worry about what might go wrong, from burning the food to no one having anything to say to the toilet stopping up. A wise friend advised me to tape signs in cheerful felt markers in lots of places in our then apartment: For fun! The reminders worked. I sang while I cooked and straightened. I don’t think anything burned or any toilets backed up. For sure, people found things to talk about. I wasn’t drummed out of the family. All of that would have been true if I’d continued to fret, but how nice not to! For anyone who’s worried about their writing, I recommend placing exactly these signs anywhere you’re likely to look. Remember how I end each blog post.

I googled randomizer, and I wouldn’t use it to help me with my plot. That way lies chaos, in my opinion. But I would use it for a poem. In fact, I can’t wait to try it. Thank you, StoryBlossom!

Here are three prompts:

  • Google randomizer and use it to write a poem. Here are some suggestions for what you might put in: three images, like The golden horse weathervane was stationary against a backdrop of scudding clouds (feel free to use this one); a proverb; a fruit or vegetable; a fragment of a memory—and whatever else you like. See, as I’m going to, what the randomizer does with them, but don’t feel obliged to use whatever comes out. Fool with it until you’re satisfied.
  • Going against what I said above, use a randomizer to generate story ideas. Stick in a sentence from ten different fairy tales. See what happens and use what you can.
  • Marco and Juliette are working on a scene together for an acting class. Marco is a perfectionist and Juliette is not. Write the rehearsal. If you feel like it, expand it into a story. If you feel like it, make the story a romcom.

Have FUN!!! FUN!!! And save what you write.

Ideas Versus Written-Down Stories

On March 16, 2021, Brambles and Bees wrote, I’m having a bit of a crisis. I have been trying to write a book, but I always end up disliking the idea and then give up. Or I actually do like it, but I have a hard time with writing it. I think it might be a problem with me not planning out my writing carefully, but I have never really liked planning anything out. I also don’t like a lot of the characters I create because I always have this perfect image in my head, but I can never get the character to fit into that mold. So how do you actually write out your characters? And how do you create enjoyable plots and storylines?

Two of you answered.

Fantasywriter6: One thing I’ve learned is to save what you write. Sometimes I’ll scroll through my Google Docs and find an old story that I started but gave up on, and I’ll find a totally new perspective on it or find that the words flow a lot better. Also, don’t pressure yourself to write a Full Length Book…the idea’s pretty intimidating and makes me feel like I need to get it right the first time, but who does? Just write because you love to write! Also, have conversations with people you trust about your specific plot lines or characters and see if they can help you form words. My guess is that you have great ideas (we are our own worst critic) but have a hard time putting pen to paper and being satisfied with what comes out. Just, again, remember that nothing comes out perfect- and very few things come out great- the first time!

FantasyFan101: I have that problem too. I hated a lot of my characters, but Gail’s character questionnaire saved me. It’s a bunch of questions about your characters that you fill in. You can modify the questions depending on the world you create and a bunch of other things. It really helped me for my current WIP. I knew from previous stories that my characters were usually just creatures with a name and appearance. They had no special traits and way of speaking, or even standing. The questionnaire was a life saver. As for creating enjoyable plots and storylines, I did like you, just went where the story took me. But I’ve realized, I like to write Sneak Peeks. They help me get the gist of where I want to go, and how I want to do it. You can plan the beginning threads of future scenes, before weaving them into the actual masterpiece.

I’m with Fantasywriter6 that pressure isn’t helpful, is actually the enemy. And, FantasyFan101, I love the Sneak Peaks idea, which seems fun and freeing.

And I’m happy that you’re both into fantasy!

Dreaming up a story idea is exhilarating. Writing it down is humbling. Ideas and written-down stories are no more than distant cousins, so we can’t expect the first to morph easily into the second. When we’re in the castles-in-the-air stage, we see walls and towers made of glistening stone and pennants waving in a gentle breeze against a bright blue sky. We don’t think about rats and mice and itchy vermin, and winter drafts and plumbing. When we start writing, though, we have to contend with those things, which will make our setting real.

I’m not much of a planner either, though lately I’ve been writing a super-short outline before I start, and I have to know the end I’m aiming for. But the end may change if my story can no longer accommodate it, and I tend to forget about the outline.

Plot and character aren’t distant cousins, they are BFFs. They do everything together, go nowhere without the other. They talk and plan and grow and change in tandem.

If I’m even the tiniest bit uncertain while I’m writing a book, I toggle to my Ideas document to put down what may come next, and what may come next can be the tiniest thing, like what physical gesture a character can make during a conversation. For even that little thing I may make a list. I’m not a fast writer.

Let’s use that gesture question to see how plot and character work together. Imagine that our MC, high school sophomore Lisa, is paired with Sam, a classmate, to make a presentation on the use of animals in scientific experiments. They just have to research facts, but they discover that they’re on opposite sides of the issue. Sam says flatly, “You’re wrong, Lisa.” She replies, “You’re wrong, Sam.” We’re thinking about how she says her reply. If she accompanies her words with a shrug, their work probably continues, albeit frostily. If she thrusts her head to an inch from Sam’s and lets out a little spittle on the S, which wets his upper lip, things may escalate. Either one moves our plot along.

Both possibilities reveal character. Shrugging Lisa may have an easy temperament, or she may hate to argue, or she may have a crush on Sam. Spitting Lisa may anger easily, or she may feel so deeply about the subject that she wants to be sure she got her point across. She may or may not realize that spit was involved.

My character questionnaire is in my writing how-to book, Writing Magic. We can use it to help us decide how Lisa will react.

Planning isn’t necessary to make our plot evolve, but it is useful to have half an eye on where we want to go. Suppose for example that we want to start a little romance between these two. If that’s not the end of our story, at least it can be our next plot point.

If Sam backs away and rushes for a sink to wash off the saliva, we’ll know we have a steep hill to climb to get them to a kiss—and we can think about how to do it. If he laughs and says she reminds him of his sister (in a good way), we may worry that this is going to be too easy—and we can think about how to make trouble.

I tend to find my characters in their thoughts, feelings, action, and speech. And I tend to decide what those thought, etc., will be based on the direction I want my story to go in.

Here’s an early prompt: Take any character you’re working on with you today (or tomorrow if you’re about to go to sleep). Here’s how you might do it:

Later this afternoon, my friend Christa will come over with her dog Demi for a playdate with Reggie, as they’ve been doing a few times a week since both of them were just past puppyhood. Addie, my MC in The Two Princesses of Bamarre, would probably be afraid of lively Demi. She might even go into our house for safety. Her sister Meryl would be interested in only Demi and not in Christa or me. Meryl might imagine Demi to be a dragon in dog disguise. She’d also go into the house to persuade Addie to come back out. What would your characters do? If you had a friend over or visited a friend, how would they behave? What would they do, let loose in your house or town?

Our perfect characters have to have the equivalent of the castle mice and vermin—flaws—to be real, even to be lovable. We can ask ourselves—and make a list!—what makes this character perfect in our minds? We’re probably not going to be able to keep all these qualities, so what’s the perfection we care about most? In my backyard scene or in your activities for the day, how would this perfect characteristic express itself? Would your character intervene successfully in, say, an argument between Christa and me? Would she see the big glass fragment in our path and pick it up before one of the dogs stepped on it and got a deep cut? (This has happened. Every spring our backyard, which has been continuously inhabited for over two hundred years, sends up a harvest of glass. For a long time garbage disposal seems to have involved throwing things and leaving them where they landed.)

Let’s imagine it’s the glass because our heroic MC always has an eye out for danger. But in saving a dog, she fails to notice that Christa is weeping over something mean  that Gail just said, and she’s confused by the emotion. So she’s less than perfect about human interaction.

Or she can be so attuned to people’s feelings that a dog has lost a pint of blood before she notices.

Brambles and Bees is a tad hard on herself in her question. Many of us are when it comes to writing—or to any creative endeavor. We need to find havens in our writing method that don’t trigger self-criticism. This blog is one of those spots for me. Posts are short. Little is at stake, because if I don’t get an answer exactly right, the question is likely to resurface in a slightly altered way, and I’ll get another crack at it.

Poems are a haven too. Mine are often less than a page and almost never more than two. I expect to write more in the revising phase than in the creating stage, and I love to tinker.

We can give ourselves the refuge of writing short even in a long manuscript. My ideas document, which I create for each book, is that refuge. When I’m lost, I toggle over there to write about my confusion and to make lists or to revise a paragraph or even a sentence. Nothing is at stake there. No one will see the document. I can let loose with all my notions and not call any of them stupid. I even feel different when I’m doing this. My shoulders are looser, and my skull seems to crack open, allowing ideas of every sort to frolic.

Here are two prompts to go with the one above:

  • Your MC knows she needs to take everything less seriously. Her relationship with her best friend depends on it as does her own peace of mind in the face of teasing by her older brother and younger sister. How does she go about it? Write the story.
  • Your MC, a master at a particular game or sport (you decide which), is having a match against the sentient dragon who is holding her parents hostage. She knows that it will honor its promise to release them if it loses, and she knows three other things: It hates to lose so much that it is likely to burn her to a crisp if she wins; if it realizes she lost on purpose it is likely to burn her to a crisp; she hates to lose as much as the dragon does. Write the story.

Have fun and save what you write!

Hep Cat

Before I start the post and because of a few recent questions that I loved, I’m happy to let you all know that I have a new book for kids coming out in October: Sparrows in the Wind. It’s a new take on the Greek myth of the Trojan War. Part One is told by Trojan princess Cassandra, who has the gift of prophecy and the curse of never being believed; Part Two is told by the Amazon princess Rin. A Greek chorus is spoken by three crows, Apollo’s sacred bird.

On February 8, 2021, Cara K wrote, My current W.I.P. is based in the 1950s, and I want to make sure that it is accurate to the time period. I have used many websites containing the ‘slang’ used back then, but I’m not sure if I’m using it correctly. Do you have any advice on how I can make my writing more accurate to the time period?

Two of you weighed in:

Katie W. wrote, There’s a series of three blog posts about historical fiction that might help, and if you know anyone who remembers the ’50’s, you could ask them. Or you could read books from that era, both fiction and nonfiction, to get a feel for the kinds of things they talked about and what their writing voices (and dialogue) sounded like.

Melissa Mead wrote, It’s a great way to get to know your relatives, if you have any from that era. You could also look for living history shows on YouTube. I just watched one that went “back in time” to the 1970s. Nothing like watching your childhood on a Past History show to make a person feel old.

Both Melissa Mead and Katie W. are recommending primary sources: interviews with people who were alive then (I was!), books, newspapers, magazines (including the ads), ancient television shows, etc. I just googled children’s books and YA books published during the decade. Treasures live in those books for contemporary writers!

If you do interview people who were alive in the ‘fifties, follow the proverb: Trust, but verify, especially if you’re talking to me. I’m vague about what was ‘fifties and what was ‘sixties. I’m not old enough to remember the ‘forties, but World War II was very alive in memory and popular culture when I was growing up.

Secondary sources can give us an overview. Who was president? What were the major current events for the year or years we’re writing about? How was the economy? On some bookshelf or other in our house is a coffee-table book that covers the whole twentieth century year by year, which I leaned on for my historical novel, Dave at Night, that’s set in 1926.

For A Ceiling Made of Eggshells, I researched fifteenth century Spain, and the problem was not enough information. Records (except of the Inquisition whose clerks were obsessive about getting it all down) were lost or not kept in the first place. There were no newspapers and no photographs; people didn’t confide in diaries.

If we’re writing about the ‘fifties, we have the opposite problem. There’s too much. We can be overwhelmed. We can become fascinated (the risk for me) and lose ourselves for hours or days in reading material we’ll never need. We have to know at least the ballpark of what we need to find out.

I just googled ‘fifties slang. I hadn’t ever heard of half of it, and of the bits I knew, I was surprised they aren’t still used by everyone. Except for hep cat. Nobody says that anymore. So, some may be regional. Or I could just be ignorant. But I’d say the takeaway is to be sparing with slang. See what you encounter most often in your reading and interviewing and stick with that. For example, in early drafts of Dave, I used the word great as today (unless it’s changed) people are likely to say awesome. A friend told me great was too contemporary. The term in the ‘twenties would have been swell. Gratefully, I made the change.

Technology often gives rise to terms that, while not slang, tend to die out when the technology changes. For example, televisions proliferated in the ‘fifties, but they were still fairly new and the connection wasn’t always great. Static was sometimes called snow. The antenna on top of the TV set was sometimes called rabbit ears. Remotes were decades in the future, and snow would make people heave themselves up from  their couches to move the ears around in hopes of improving the reception.

I bet there’s car technology that also yielded jargon of the decade.

And we need to remember that a lot changes from year to year. Language and outlook can change too.

When I was preparing to write Ceiling, I read a YA and a middle-grade book set in the Middle Ages: The Passion of Dolssa by Julie Berry (high school and up), and The Inquisitor’s Tale: Or, the Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog by Adam Gidwitz (okay for elementary school kids). I thought they were terrific. When I worried about the historical accuracy of my book, I looked at the Afterwards in each of theirs. Both Berry and Gidwitz apologized for any mistakes they may have made.

I did the same. Mistakes are inevitable. We just try to make as few of them as possible.

Here are three prompts:

  • Here’s a link I found when I googled “1955 in history”: https://www.thepeoplehistory.com/1955.html. Pick something that happened then and write a short story of historical fiction. Or choose a different year.
  • Your MC sets her time machine for sixty years in the future. She’s packed the latest personal technology, hoping some of it will be useful. Her jacket is made of microfiber. Her watch is digital. And so on. She’s so excited she hasn’t slept in three days and concentration is a problem. By accident, she sets the machine on sixty years in the past and clicks Go. Write what happens.
  • Your MC spends a week in a medieval-fair reenactment and wakes up to find herself in thirteenth century England. Write what happens.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Malevolent and Weirdly Smart Cougars

This post is about dialogue, and a different dialogue question came in on the blog very recently. I’m going to hold it until its turn comes, but, Brambles and Bees, you may find this one useful too.

On January 25, 2021, FantasyFan101 wrote, I need help with dialogue. First of all, I feel I don’t give enough dialogue, and second, I feel that I don’t unleash enough of the characters into their speech, and it makes it dull. For example:

The next morning Anderis woke early and scouted the surrounding space. What he found was frightening. He roused his mother.

“Mother, wake up. Hurry! We have to keep moving. I found fresh cougar tracks a little ways south of the camp. One must have come down from the Posuit Mountains. It’s likely scouting the area because it found us. It could attack any time,” said Anderis.

“All right, Anderis. I’m getting up,” his mother replied.

See? I don’t know if it’s too quick, or if I should slow down and make them talk longer. Is the mother’s reaction boring? Do I describe the landscape? Nearly the whole book is like this. Please help.

A few of you pitched in back then.

Katie W.: I think maybe the reason it feels like your dialogue is boring is because you’re trying to fit too much information into the dialogue instead of the narrative. I’m not sure if this is what you’re looking for, but here’s how I would rewrite your example.

Anderis woke before dawn the next morning. The air was still, but something had changed. Careful not to wake his mother, he set off to see what the problem was. It didn’t take long. A little way south of the camp was a set of pawprints the size of his hand. Cougar tracks. He glanced up at the Posuit Mountains looming overhead, wondering if any more cats were following the first. Anderis shivered and turned back to the camp before his imagination finished getting the better of him.

“Mother, wake up! Hurry!” he called, dropping to his knees next to her. She grumbled something and rolled over. He shook her shoulder, hard, before she could fall asleep again.

“What’s the matter?” she mumbled.

“I found fresh cougar tracks just south of here. It must have come down from the mountains. It could attack any time.”

“All right, Anderis. I’m getting up.”

In general, the character traits that come through in dialogue are things like humor, sarcasm, how outgoing the character is, and precise details about their emotional state. If you’re looking for examples, I would probably recommend Megan Whalen Turner’s The Thief and its sequels (late middle school and up) for humorous dialogue, Enchanted, by Alathea Kontis, (middle school and up) for extended conversations, and anything by Timothy Zahn (high school and up except for his MG Dragonback series) for help with description both within and outside of dialogue.

Melissa Mead: I agree with Katie W’s approach. Rather than say “What he found was frightening,” show us what he found, and help us feel why it’s frightening.

Cougars don’t usually attack people, though. They’re usually quite shy. You’d have to describe what triggered them. This looks like it might be helpful: https://www.humanesociety.org/resources/what-do-about-cougars.

Belle Adora: If you are writing and aren’t sure if the dialogue sounds natural, read it out loud.

These are terrific! I especially like Katie W.’s introduction of Anderis’s thoughts into the narrative.

The reader of the whole story has the advantage over us in knowing what the conflict in this story is and what to worry about. But if this is the very beginning, and one of the problems is the defenselessness of, say, travelers, we can start to bring this in, using Anderis’s thoughts as well as what he says.

Melissa Mead’s link about cougars can help us. (I love using research in my fiction.) In narration, we can say that these are, for example, a subspecies called Calamity Cougars because they’re not at all shy and kill with their claws as well as their fangs. Such information will raise the stakes.

We can bring in body language to join the conversation, so to speak. Anderis’s mom’s response to his urgency can be just to roll over. Or she can jump up and, disoriented, run in the direction of the pawprints. Or something else. We can make a list.

Meanwhile, he can start breaking camp, his gestures sharp and angry. Or something else.

And we can list what Anderis might think, like that she never really gets moving before noon, or that he has to worry for both of them since she’s so calm, or how his father could always get Mom to do whatever he wanted.

And we can list what she might say. She might start telling him the great dream he interrupted. Or make fun of him for worrying.

Feelings can get into the act. Voices can be raised or lowered. Mom can sing to drown Anderis out.

As we try things, we define our characters, and our dialogue tightens.

It will help if we know the problem of our story, which could be malevolent, weirdly smart cougars encroaching on human civilization. Or Anderis and Mom are fleeing after robbing a den of thieves. Or they’re on a camping trip to repair their relationship.

If we don’t already know, we can use this cougar-threat moment to decide what the larger conflict might be, or to try out some possibilities.

Once we do know, we consider their personalities, which will determine to a large degree how they express themselves. Anderis may be direct. He says what he thinks and makes sure he’s understood. Mom may be imaginative. In a discussion, she goes down more than one path and doesn’t double back to make sure Anderis is following. He says, “Cougars are coming.” She says, “They’re such beautiful animals.” He says, “And lethal.” She says, “Do you know we share a common ancestor?” He groans. She says, “What’s wrong, son?”

That was fun.

Here are a few technical things to think about:

  • Dialogue tends to be livelier if it’s broken up by action, like Mom rolling over to go back to sleep.
  • Unless this is a high-action scene, the thoughts and feelings of the POV character will bring the reader in. If it is a high-action scene, these—and dialogue—should appear in brief bursts.
  • In real life, people sometimes do speak in long sentences and long paragraphs, but they’re hard to plow through and tend to feel unnatural in fiction. We should be concise unless we have a character on our hands who is wordy or who is frightened into babbling. In that case, it’s fine.
  • Whenever dialogue switches from one character to another, we start a new paragraph, which will help the reader keep track.
  • The reader always needs to know who’s speaking, but we can accomplish that sometimes by giving the speaker an action. For instance, one of them can say, “Where did you put the arrows?” followed in the same paragraph by Anderis pulling aside a blanket. Then the reader knows he said the line. Of course, he can also say, “Mom, where did you put the arrows” and the reader will know.
  • If we need to just say who’s speaking, the verbs said and ask are better than anything else (like replied or queried) because said and ask don’t draw attention to themselves. The exception is when we’re revealing volume. If a character is whispering, the reader should be told.

And here are three prompts from the story possibilities I suggested above. Write a scene chock full of dialogue and, if you like, continue to finish the story.

  • Malevolent, weirdly smart cougars are encroaching on human civilization.
  • Anderis and Mom are fleeing after robbing a den of thieves.
  • Anderis and Mom are on a camping trip to repair their relationship.

Have fun, and save what you write!

The Beginning in the Ending

On January 17, 2021, Some girl wrote, I love writing beginnings, and middles are fine, but endings always stump me. I can’t write endings that are a good end to the story.

My editors say they are extremely anticlimactic and aren’t a good fit to the rest of the story. Endings are the main reason I abandon stories. I once rewrote the ending four times and every time it felt awkward, abrupt, and anticlimactic. Anyone have any advice?

Several of us weighed in.

Melissa Mead: I have the same problem! Sometimes I try to link the ending to something in the beginning. And I try to focus on the heart of the story- Did the MC get what they wanted? Learn something? Change in some other way?

If it’s not too tacky to use my own stuff as an example, here’s one that I think works fairly well. It starts with “It was a nightmare come to life,” and “Gallop…gallop…gallop…,” and it sort of ends that way too, but something’s changed.  


Me (now): This is lots of fun and the ending works beautifully.

Back then, I asked Some Girl for clarification.

Some girl: The stories I write feel like they were building up to something bigger than what I wrote down, but I can’t really tell what the story was building up to.

Sometimes I decide on the ending that fits before I write the book, but that doesn’t work either because as the stories move around, the ending I originally thought would work won’t anymore, and I don’t want to try to mold my story to fit the ending.

Melissa Mead: I agree with not molding the story to fit the ending. Maybe ask someone to read the story, then ask them “Was there anything you still wanted to know after you read the ending?”

SluggishWriter: I’m still working on this myself, but I find that the most satisfying endings for me are when you can directly tie it back to something in the beginning. For example, a character asks a question or makes a joke early on, then references back to that and provides an answer or some insight at the end of the story. I’ve heard of this being called “brackets,” too – as if you’ve enclosed your story by having one thing at the beginning, then closing it up at the end. And you can layer multiples of these within a story.

Christie V Powell: The climax is the main show-down with your antagonistic force. What has your character been fighting against the whole time? Then think of ways you can make it even more exciting. Make sure that antagonistic force, who or whatever it is, puts up a good fight.

You’ll also want to look at the major events of the story so far. What could they lead up to? Ideally, all of the conflicts lead up to this one moment. Remember in Ella Enchanted, when Ella is struggling with her curse at the very end? Her mind goes back over many of the major events of the story, showing how all of them have impacted the main conflict (Ella vs. her curse).

Story structure helps me get a better idea of what the climax should be, since it helps me define the important moments that lead up to it. I use a variation of the 3-Act formula, and I find that it helps me get the bones of the story down, so that my creative mind is free to work on details.

Since you can’t click on links, here’s a quick overview:

Act 1.A: characteristic moment(s), high action, inciting incident

Act 1.B: normal world, first plot point (“point of no return”)

Act 2.A: enter the new world, first pinch point (learn about the antagonist)

Act 2.B: reactions, midpoint (the main character learns a major Truth about the world)

Act 2.C: start acting with purpose, second pinch point (involve the antagonist, reminder of what’s at stake)

Act 2.D: act with purpose, often includes a “false victory,” followed by the second pinch point (low point of the story)

Act 3.A: finish off loose ends, prepare for climax. Trigger (climax set off)

Act 3.B: Climax with the antagonist, then resolution where the story and character’s beginning and end are compared.

Great thoughts!

Before the four years it took me to finish my second murder mystery for kids, Stolen Magic, I believed that writing itself was magical, and pantsing would always guide me to my ending, but I got so lost on that book that I realized I had to be more intentional in the future. If I had been, I might have achieved some of the story I was hoping to tell. I’m still sad that I couldn’t write that tale, which grows more alluring and more regretted as time goes by. (I like what I finally came up with, but that original idea is the one that got away.)

These days, I won’t start writing until I know the ending. Since I’m still mostly a pantser, I don’t usually see it in detail, but I have the general result in mind. Let’s use the fairy tale “Aladdin,” as an example.

Most important to me always is plot, but character is a close second. Briefly, Aladdin is criticized at the beginning for being lazy. But is he? I don’t know. He’s flattered into helping a man who poses as his uncle but is really an evil magician who promises to make his fortune. The magician takes Aladdin to a remote spot, where he gives him a ring and sends him underground to fetch a particular lamp. When Aladdin doesn’t hand him the lamp before emerging, the magician kicks him off the ladder and plunges him in darkness. Moving along, Aladdin discovers the genie in the ring and the one in the lamp and uses their magic to win the sultan’s daughter for his wife. But the magician returns and disguises himself as a merchant, exchanging, oddly, old lamps for new. Unknowing, the sultan’s daughter is transported in her palace to the magician’s distant home. With only the weaker ring genie to help him, Aladdin can’t just magically get her back. The genie can poof him to the palace, but he has to do the rest, using a poisonous powder that he just happens to have and the help of his wife. There’s a second part that follows involving the now dead magician’s younger brother, also a magician, but most modern versions leave that part off—sensibly, I think.

There’s a happy ending, but it’s unsatisfying because the genies do all the heavy lifting, and the actions of Aladdin, the sultan’s daughter, and even the magician are unmotivated. Is Aladdin really lazy? If yes, why? Aside from her rank, why does he want to marry the sultan’s daughter (whom he’s never met)? After they’re married, why doesn’t he tell her the truth about the lamp so that she’ll be careful with it? What’s their relationship like? What does she think about him? Why does the magician kidnap her? What else does he want the lamp for? Why did he kick Aladdin back underground when he could have been a little patient and gotten what he wanted? Why do the genies obey people?

Most of all, what is the key problem of the story? Because a satisfying ending has to respond to the problem. The ending’s seeds start sprouting as soon as we write or type our first page or chapter.

If the problem is Aladdin’s laziness, then maybe we have a coming-of-age story, and we have to show how Aladdin develops and regresses and eventually (for our ending) acts emphatically to fulfill his potential as a future sultan. If I understand Christie V Powell’s method, the Lie might be that Aladdin is well served by being lazy (and we can give him a backstory that explains this), and the Truth is that he can be truly himself only when he becomes the prime actor in his life.

If this is a love story and the problem is Aladdin and the sultan’s daughter coming to love each other, then we are heading for a different ending. In this one, conceivably, rather than vanquishing the evil magician, they escape with their lives and run off together, no longer needing the trappings of wealth and title.

If the problem is overcoming the evil magician, who has bigger plans than making off with a young lady, we’ll emphasize other aspects of the story.

Or we can tell the story of the ring or lamp genie. Or of the sultan, who lets his daughter marry a man purely because he’s rich. Or of Aladdin’s younger sister, who isn’t mentioned in the fairy tale, but she can exist. What might her problem be?

For each one, we design our characters to make the ending both difficult and achievable. And we create plot moments that challenge our MCs on the way to the ending we have in mind, which, if we’re pantsers, may unfold in ways that surprise us.

Here are three prompts:

  • Decide what Aladdin’s younger sister’ problem is and how, in broad strokes, it can be resolved. Write the story.
  • As a sequel to Peter Pan, write the story of Wendy’s youngest brother Michael after the return from Neverland. Decide what his problem is and how it may be resolved.
  • After the death of its king, Altava is plunged into civil war for the throne. Contending are the old king’s niece and the regent of a neighboring kingdom. Write two versions of the story and make one a tragedy and one a romcom.

Have fun and save what you write!