By Me, You’re a Writer

I haven’t preceded the post with anything in a while, and I hope you haven’t minded. But here’s a little language and publishing tidbit that might interest the word nerds among us (everybody, I believe). I just finished going through the copy edits on Sparrows in the Wind, my next novel for kids, which is a reimagining of the Trojan War. The managing editor queried whether Achilles’, as I had it, should be Achilles’s and cited a section in The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS), most publishers’ authority. I don’t like Achilles’s, which sounds weird and ugly to me, and I found this link to the CMOS blog: https://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/qanda/data/faq/topics/PossessivesandAttributives/faq0057.html. Read if you’re interested. I’m going with Achilles’ as I had it, because if it’s Achilles’ heel, how can it be Achilles’s elbow? (My editor is with me on this.)

On August 28, 2020 Jen wrote, How do you deal with ‘Impostor Syndrome’? I have been told my writing is good and there are days I agree that it has promise, but then there are days when I panic and freak out that all my plots and characters are boring and cliche and that my word choices are nowhere near as good as I’d like them to be. I understand all of that can be fixed in editing, but even as I edit I still have those panic flare-ups of not being good enough. I’d appreciate all the tips anyone would like to offer.

Melissa Mead wrote back, FWIW, I’ve known pros who’ve won awards + published multiple books and still feel like this. All we can do is write the best we can at the time.

I find it helps to just finish a rough draft, then put it away for a week or so.

There’s an old Jewish joke, which I read in the charming Joys of Yiddish by Leo Rosten, that I think epitomizes the impostor syndrome. I don’t remember it exactly, but here’s the gist: A young man announces to his mother that he’s become a doctor. She smiles proudly and also shrugs. “Darling,” she says, “by you, you’re a doctor; by me, you’re a doctor; but by a doctor, are you a doctor?”

My children’s book writing apprenticeship was so long (nine years) that by the time I achieved publication, I felt like a writer. But when I went to graduate school for an MFA in poetry in 2013, I heard the joke, which is a little bit poisonous, over and over in my head. “But by a poet…” I still think it.

I don’t know the cure, but I know the medicine: Keep writing.

More medicine: Dress up as Emily Bronte or pencil in a ragged moustache to look like Edgar Allan Poe, so you are impersonating a writer—and write.

And more: Read about other writers, or read books on writing, like Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. Learn from them, as I think you will, that uncertainty and self-doubt are our lot (many of us anyway, me anyway). I find this comforting.

I’ve said here before that I try not to ask myself if what I’m writing is good. I try not to ask the question at every stage of the process, from thinking about what I might write all the way to post-publication. And I pay attention to words that are in the judgment category along with good, words like mediocre word choice, boring, cliché.

And not good enough for whom, if I may ask?

I don’t succeed all the time, because the self-attack disguises itself. My latest worry seems to be: Who will read this? Which could be a real question in early planning stages, I guess, but once I get started, it’s unhelpful—

Because I can’t use it or any self-attack. Self-attack isn’t specific. It doesn’t help me see that Marla in the second chapter wouldn’t tell her best friend that she gave away a secret he shared with her. Or that my description of the best friend’s house could be reworked so it reveals something about his character.

Let’s look at mediocre word choice. That’s what a thesaurus is for! If we see a word that we think doesn’t nail what we have in mind, we go to Roget or Thesaurus.com. If we’re me and we’re not satisfied right away, we noodle around, look at more than the first page of options, click on a few possibilities to see where they take us.

Writers need criticism from ourselves and from peers—I do! But we need specifics about things like pacing, character consistency, and, yes sometimes, word choice. We don’t need attack. And we must learn to tell one from the other, especially when the wounds are self-inflicted. We have to police our thoughts!

I’m also not crazy about global compliments from friends and other writers. Good, just like bad, isn’t specific. This kind of praise gives me a sugar high, and after it wears off, I start worrying. Will I continue to please this person? What did I do that was so fabulous? Will I ever be able to do it again? On the other hand, specific praise, for a page of dialogue or a description of a landscape, is nutritious. I’m never going to have to do precisely that again, so I won’t disappoint, and, yeah, I’m glad my discerning friend noticed. Yum!

Here are three prompts:

  • Here’s a question that has plagued fairy tale fans for centuries: What is the real form of the evil queen in “Snow White”? Is she really “fairest in the land” before Snow gets old enough to take her superlative? Write a scene from her origin story.
  • Sticking with the same tale, if the evil queen is really beautiful, why does she keep doubting herself and checking with the mirror? Write a different origin story, this one about the source of her impostor syndrome.
  • Dr. Jekyll has been turning into Mr. Hyde for a while, and he’s starting to wonder which one is his true self. Write two scenes, one when he’s Dr. Jekyll considering the question, and one as Mr. Hyde doing the same—while harming someone in a grisly way.

Have fun, and save what you write!

The Inquiring Mind

On August 12, 2020, Erica wrote, In my WIP, my main character hurts his arm in a well-publicized accident, and needs to wear a splint. By the time he gets out of the hospital, nearly everyone has heard about it. I’ve never had to wear anything like that, so I wanted to ask your opinions. How would people react to seeing him with the sling? Would this be different based on whether they were friends, acquaintances, or strangers?

I’m honestly getting rather frustrated with this project. I’ve had the basic idea for the past three years and started this draft a year ago. In that year, I’ve changed all kinds of details, so that the original inspiration is nearly unrecognizable. As I try to write, part of my brain is cataloging all of the edits I’ll need to make once I finish the first draft. I feel like I’ll never actually be able to finish this story, which is a shame, because it’s by far the most ambitious story I’ve ever written. I suppose my other question is: How do you keep writing when it doesn’t feel like you’re making any progress?

A few of us weighed in:

NerdyNiña: Oh, I feel that! I’ve been working on one of my WIPs for about three and a half years, and it keeps changing, too. Like you said, the original inspiration is almost unrecognizable. I can’t honestly say I have any ideas to help. When I get confused, I put it back on the shelf and work on something else. But I do come back to it. I think that’s the important part.

Me: I’d suggest tying your arm in a white dishtowel sling and wearing it (with you masked, of course) a few places.

Melissa Mead: Good idea! Maybe even bring along someone (appropriately distanced) to catch reactions that you might miss. In grad school, my friends and I did an assignment where we had to pretend to have a disability. Maybe it’s because I’ve already got one, but my friends caught stuff that went right over my head.

A jillion or more years ago, when I was in college, I broke my ankle in a few places and was in a cast and on crutches (which did wonders for my pecs!) for a few months. One time, a boy of about six or seven asked his father what was wrong with me, which should have been obvious to a grownup. But this clueless man told his son that my leg had been amputated, even though there it was in plain sight. I don’t remember setting the record straight, but I was angry.

Why did I care, really? The father probably belonged to the Flat Earth Society and believed the moon is a wheel of gouda cheese.

Thank you, Erica, for asking this and giving me a chance to rave about research. My little broken-ankle example qualifies as research to me—and what do we gain or learn from it?

  • An injury can yield at least one benefit, in my case buffed-up chest muscles. (Possibly useful in plotting.)
  • Avenues of speculation open. Did the father even look at my leg? What might have led him, even reasonably, to his conclusion? (Character development.)
  • What caused my anger? What did it say about me? If I’m a fictional character, we can list possible reasons and consider how they might influence my future actions. (More character development.)

Please tell us, Erica, if you tried the dishtowel-around-your-arm suggestion and how it worked out.

In addition to our own experiments, we can see if we know anyone with this particular injury and ask them about their experiences. Ask follow-up questions, for example, about daily life—like, I don’t remember if I had to just wear skirts or dresses when I had the enormous cast or if I was able to pull on pants. I do remember that my cast didn’t like wet weather and had to be replaced a few times. Was I careless? Probably (another character revelation). In the case of an arm, was it the dominant one? How did it affect eating? Writing? And more.

We can google information about wearing a splint. Here’s a link to a Canadian website on the subject, but before I post it, know that I have no expertise and can’t tell if the information is accurate. The link is to further the cause of fiction, not medicine: https://myhealth.alberta.ca/Health/aftercareinformation/pages/conditions.aspx?hwid=abq3952.

We don’t have to limit our inquiry to our exact fictional injury. My ankle experience, I hope, is germane.

If we’re writing historical or contemporary fiction, we have to be accurate when we use our research, or the reader is likely to notice and stop suspending disbelief. But if we’re writing fantasy or sci fi or any kind of speculative fiction, we can deviate. A layer of herbs can be spread on the arm before the splint is applied, or, say, the splint can be made of a material that undulates providing timed massages to promote healing. Or anything else.

Research is interesting for its own sake, and it almost always surprises and generates ideas. I was flabbergasted when that man opined that my leg had been taken off. What else might someone think of other than an ordinary broken bone?

What might one of our characters say? We can make a list:

  • “Her leg will never regain full function. Son, this is why you need to be at least thirty-five before you get your driver’s license.”
  • “A lawsuit made that girl very rich. Her earrings look like silver, but they’re really platinum. Did she share the wealth with her father? I don’t think so!” (I don’t like this guy!)
  • “This is a research hospital. Son, I hear their casts are really seven-league boots. Let’s follow her!”

I also love research because I come out of it knowing more, which may come in handy in another project—or not — knowledge is great for its own sake.

Now for Erica’s second question: how to keep going when we feel like we’re pushing through mud up to our armpits—it’s hard, and it’s happened to me more than once.

When a book is just my normal amount of difficult, I soldier through to the end without interrupting my flow for major rewrites. But when I’m lost and stuck and the lostness and stuckness have persisted, I go back — sometimes, alas, more than once.

If I haven’t kept a running summary of my plot as I’ve written it (I create only the briefest and sketchiest of outlines), this is a good time to do so, chapter by chapter with a few sentences about what happened in each. (While we’re doing this and everything that follows, we don’t allow ourselves to make any quality judgments. Our story isn’t bad or good or clichéd or boring; it’s just in flux.)

When we finish the synopsis, we note where we stopped sailing along. We can ask ourselves if there’s a spot—or spots—where our plot complicates itself, possibly unnecessarily. Are there characters we don’t need? Scenes? Are there places we need to fill in with more writing?

If we know the ending we’re writing toward, we can ask ourselves if we’ve strayed from its direction and if we can use the wandering to get us there in a surprising way or if we have to tweak or change what’s been going on.

If we don’t know the ending, this is a perfect moment to think about it. We can list what it might be, keeping in mind our story so far. We should take care to be free in our ideas at this juncture. Nothing is crazy.

When we have an ending that pleases us, we return to our synopsis to decide what we have that supports it and what may make it unachievable?

What we finally come up with may be quite different from our original ideas, which we still love. Maybe we have to shelve those ideas for another story. I’ve had to. We can write only the story we can write.

This process is not likely to be quick. I say, So be it. A story takes as long as it takes. You can embroider that on a sampler and hang it over your desk.

I’m allergic to abandoning a story once I’ve written, say, twenty pages. This isn’t necessarily a virtue. It’s possible I should have dropped what became Stolen Magic long before it gobbled four-and-a-half years. (A book that was not the story I set out with.) You can put your story in a drawer and, mixing metaphors, let it simmer. When it’s finished cooking, it will leap into your mind.

Here are three prompts:

  • If you remember your mythology, the Minotaur, half bull, half human, lives in a labyrinth and kills anyone lost in there with him. The hero Theseus finds his way by tying a string to the doorpost and unraveling it as he goes. In your story, he kills the Minotaur, turns to follow the string back, and discovers that it’s gone. Tell the story of his escape or failure to escape. Make it complicated. Bring in more characters.
  • Your MC has lost an ear in a bizarre carpentry accident. The bleeding has stopped. Write what happens.
  • Snow White is lost in the woods after the hunter has left her. When she reaches the dwarves’ cottage, they’re eating dinner, which, she discovers by listening at the door is a ragout of the last princess to show up looking for rescue. Write the story.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Who Decides?

On July 17, 2020, Pleasure Writer wrote, How do you know whether or not you even have talent as an unpublished, unknown writer? I’ve only had close friends read my work, though I’ve been writing for four years now. What I would really like to know is if I even have hope of ever being published. Any thoughts on how to know if I even have potential?

Several of you weighed in:

Melissa Mead: Honestly, from what I’ve seen with other writers, “talent” really doesn’t mean much. The things that seem to help most are the ability to think of interesting ideas, accept and learn from constructive feedback, and persist in the face of rejection. And practice beats potential any day.  

Writeforfun: There’s an author on YouTube who believes that writing fanfiction is helpful for this when you’re learning to write, because you can post your writing online for wide audiences to read and review. They’ll let you know what they think and offer constructive criticism.

That said, I’ve never written or posted fanfiction, nor do I plan to, but I thought it was interesting that she recommended this.

For me, I don’t think I have talent – I just enjoy writing, so I do it. I started writing when I was fourteen or fifteen I think (when this blog was very young!), and rereading what I wrote back then is a little painful because my first books were so poorly written. But I can also see how I’ve improved over the years! Each book since I started has gotten better and better as I’ve learned and practiced.

You know, I’m actually really interested to read a blog post on this! Because, sometimes I think it’s kind of funny that we worry so much about having talent for creative things like writing. I used to draw and paint portraits for a living; but I learned to do all of that artwork through practice, not talent. Don’t you think that’s generally the case? I don’t think anyone, no matter how talented they are or think they are, can pick up a pencil for the first time and know automatically how to create a photorealistic portrait. I would be tempted to say that if I had any “talent,” I think it was only the love of drawing!

For that matter, my sister is a concert pianist and harpist who also arranges and composes music, which is another creative discipline; but that all comes from practice, too!

Melissa Mead: I think you’re right. I think learning and practice counts for more than talent.

Christie V Powell: You can definitely learn to be a good writer. Everyone has potential.

I really loved this motivational speech by Brandon Sanderson. He talks about the value of writing whether or not you publish, and setting realistic goals, among other things. Plus there’s a funny parrot. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oH9sJrAVeC0

It sounds like you could use a good writing group. Do you know how to find one? I found mine on facebook, in a group for writers from the same religion. I’ve also met with the local one, though more to socialize than to get feedback. One of my local friends has dysgraphia and he still publishes a book each year–he just uses multiple editors to help him.

Fiona Wherity: Honestly, I have this very same problem. I always start writing and then hate it and stop so I get nervous that I’ll never be good enough. My friends and family say they love it, but I feel like it’s their job to say that. I always end up writing and having more ideas for more stories, but then I read an amazing book I love and realize that I might not ever write as well as my favorite authors. I always try though, that’s what really keeps me going, the fact that I might. I might get there. I might finish this book. I might get it published. I just keep hoping. Hoping and trying.

Melissa Mead: Hang in there! The more you practice, the better you get.

Pleasure Writer: Thank you all so much for your thoughts! I am not a part of a writing group, though I have wanted to find one for a while. I guess I should start looking for one to be a part of. It sounds like it would be helpful.

These are terrific!

For me, the question about talent comes down to: Who decides?

I may not have mentioned here that I’m working on a memoir, mostly about becoming a writer. I don’t have a publisher yet and don’t know if one will want it, but it’s an interesting project and has drawn me back to my early days as a writing wannabe, and even before then. You may have read here or elsewhere that Mr. Pashkin, my high school creative writing teacher, wrote across the top of one of my stories, “You know your problem. You’re pedestrian.” In his inscription, pedestrian meant dull, and he meant not just my story, all of me.

He didn’t think I had writing or any kind of creative talent. I go into this more in the memoir, but for here—I believed him and stopped writing for about twenty years, returning to it only because I had a job that involved writing, and everyone there loved my wordcraft and encouraged me.

In the years following the release of Ella Enchanted, my first published book, success has rose tinted the nine years of rejection that preceded it. Fellow wannabes in my classes and critique groups encouraged me. They became friends. I was happy.

When I don’t have access to my laptop—and before laptops were invented—I write in steno pads. I’ve gone through those pads, and the ones from the rejection period tell a more rounded tale. After receiving yet another rejection for an early version of my historical novel, Dave at Night, I wrote that I couldn’t stop crying and my stomach was churning. 

This will see the light of day if the memoir gets published, the most derogatory of my rejections for a picture book that hasn’t ever been picked up. Here’s the body of the letter:

What I mean when I say that a story is not strong enough to sustain a 32-page picture book is that I don’t feel a young child would be captivated enough to sit through a reading. A story that speaks directly to children, that has a strong plot and interesting characters is perhaps the most successful type of picture book.

Sweet Fanopps is an example of a story which in my opinion does not have enough of a plot. The idea is very basic and it’s not very emotionally-charged—I don’t think it has enough substance to be successful.

This editor did not believe I had talent. I wish I could go on to say that she later edited one of my books–or recanted. She did not.

My steno pads are filled with these two sentences: I don’t want to write. I’d much rather read my book (written by someone else)—followed by pages of me writing, a lot of it whining about how hard both writing and publishing were, but also ideas and text of whatever thing I was working on.

I have thirty pads of this stuff. My guess is that some of you have many more. I wrote down dreams and even used two of them in a poem recently. I found a few puns, like this one, which no one but you is likely to read, and you may have to be my age or a classic car nerd to get it: Which country has the most old automobiles? Answer: Finland.

You’re groaning, but I like it.

For me, writing is hard, especially plotting. I just played the Brandon Sanderson talk that Christie V Powell suggests above, which I think is worth watching (or listening to if you don’t mind missing the parrot’s tricks). Thank you, Christie V Powell! He talked about a dark time in his early writing days when he was facing only rejection and when he decided to keep writing because he loved doing it.

To this day, I love only some of writing. I adore coming up with ideas, but the seeming infinity of time before an idea bursts through I decidedly do not love. Being stuck is miserable. When a scene is mapped out in my head, I’m happy as can be while writing it.

But everyone is different. Some enjoying revising (me); some despise it.

I don’t like whining in my pad or now, usually, on my laptop, but it serves a purpose, which is freeing me up. When I moan and complain, I don’t expect quality writing—or achieve it. If I write down a dream, I’m not shaping my sentences. Plop! There it is. If an idea arrives, I don’t censor it or make it pretty or even ask myself it’s a good idea. Generally, I explore it and see what other ideas come in its wake.

I don’t ever ask if my idea is one a talented person would have. It’s just an idea. If I decide to go with it, I don’t ask the question either. I see where it takes me.

There are readers who don’t like my books, who may think I’m not talented. A lot of reader reviewers call my books boring. If you look, you’ll see their reviews on Goodreads and Amazon. I look at the reviews for the weird and embarrassing reason that I want to know if anyone happens to be thinking about me. But I’m sure that not one of them is the Lord or Lady High Pooh Ba of goodness or talent. No one has that power!

I’ve probably said this before: When I was in poetry school and I showed a poem to more than one faculty member for a critique, I would leave thinking I had given them different poems. They never agreed or said anything alike. I took what I could use and was grateful for their various perspectives.

The talent question is, in my opinion, just one of the many ways we find to make writing even harder, to freeze us.

Being a writer isn’t for everyone, and there’s no shame in deciding it’s not for you. This is not a decision anyone has to make quickly, and it’s reversible. Practice and writing a lot will help you discover what pleases you, what you like to write, what you must do because unless you do it you won’t have a story (plotting for me, revising for some).

Also, just saying, since no one can coronate us as talented, as an experiment, we can try going with the opinions of the readers who like our work!

Here are three prompts:

  • Make up three which-country puns like my Finland one.
  • Invent a board game or a video game of the steps, pitfalls, good luck and bad, failures and successes, story fragments and finished stories for an aspiring writer. You decide what winning means. Winner gets an earmuff for one ear.
  • Write down your dreams for a week. Put three or more together, which will probably involve changing them, to make a story. Don’t worry about logic or sense. Just see what happens.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Putting Poems In

On June 30, 2020, RedTrumpetWriter wrote, I was wondering how you came up with the epic poetry you wrote in the Bamarre stories, Gail, and some of the songs/poetry you’ve included in other stories like Stolen Magic. I would like to include something like that in a book I’m working on but I guess I wasn’t really sure where to start, like what examples I should look at or if there was any sort of formula that you followed. I’ve done a bit of looking but I was wondering if you had any tips/advice that would help me as I found what you did really immersive and such a cool part of the worldbuilding. (if anyone else has ideas they are welcome to chime in as well!)

Erica wrote back, I would recommend reading a lot of poetry and lyrics to find a style you like, and then going for it. Also, there was a post about including songs in your writing a while back (http://gailcarsonlevine.com/blog/2020/01/01/tra-la-la/). That might be helpful too.

And I wrote, I’d suggest reading ballads, which I did when I wrote The Two Princesses of Bamarre.

I love questions about poetry! We can make poems work for us in lots of ways in our stories.

For Two Princesses, I read fifteenth century English ballads, like “Barbara Allan.” I’m sure you can find examples online, but my source was Volume 1 of The Norton Anthology of English Literature, which most public libraries are likely to have. “Barbara Allan” doesn’t strictly follow ballad meter, but it’s close, and it does follow the ballad’s simple rhyme scheme.  You can look up ballad meter online, but my source is The Teachers & Writers Handbook of Poetic Forms, a super useful book if you’re interested in writing poems—or more poems. I go back to it often. Just saying, the ballad form is pretty easy. I’d suggest picking simple rhymes, not only if you’re a beginner. Simple rhymes give the poet the most options.

I’m glad RedTrumpetWriter mentioned worldbuilding, because poems can help define the world of our stories, whether they’re fantasy or not. In Two Princesses, they establish a heroic culture. In The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre, they highlight the martial nature of the Lakti and the artistic aspect of the Bamarre. In A Ceiling Made of Eggshells, poems add depth to Jewish culture of the time. Mine were inspired by The Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse, in which the poems were translated as prose. I had fun turning their themes back into verse, and the ideas in them were unlike anything I’d write on my own, so they broadened me. In my forthcoming Trojan War book, Sparrows in the Wind, the poems are modelled on my idea of a Greek chorus, because in school, I loved the Greek chorus in classic Greek plays. My chorus is three crows.

There are lots of options!

We can also use poetry for other aspects of fiction. In Stolen Magic, I was thinking of limericks, and they reveal a lighthearted side of the dragon detective Meenore—so they add to character development.

I know a poet who, as a child, spoke only in iambs (meter—da DUM, da DUM) to a friend, who answered the same way. This says a lot about who they were! You can invent characters who speak in rhyme or who use poetic devices, like alliteration, in their dialogue, combining dialogue and character development. Or a character can decide, for an entire week, never to use the word but. What do these proclivities say about a character’s personality, specifically, spontaneity? If these practices are kingdom-wide, for example, we’re back to worldbuilding.

We can—but we don’t have to—stick to one kind of poem in a novel. In Lost Kingdom, the Lakti sing simple warrior songs, while Bamarre poetry is more varied and complex. And Bamarre proverbs are short rhyming poems.

Poems can even be used for setting. In Two Princesses, a poem by Drualt describes a prison. We could use a poem even more directly for setting. Suppose a character is stuck in a labyrinth, and the only way out is to say a rhyming poem while the way unwinds—but the labyrinth will complicate itself again if the character stops speaking. This one even advances the plot too.

We can imagine poetry contests that will advance the plot too. Our villain can cheat!

I’ve used poetry for spells too, sometime in made-up languages, which move my story along. Rhyming is easy when we’re inventing the words!

And poetry is a subtle instrument, which I love about it. It’s hard to hit a reader over the head with a poem!

A couple of editors have suggested that I write a whole book in verse. Might be fun, but I’m a slow enough writer as it is. Writing poems, for me at least, is slower going than writing prose. And I worry that writing only in verse would leach the fun out of it.

If you’re not confident as a poet, I’d suggest leaning on forms, which will support you with structure. Forms help with where to end a line, whether or not to rhyme, and sometimes with length. I’d suggest also reading about rhyme because I think you’ll be surprised by the possibilities.

Here are three prompts:

  • A poem form I especially love is the pantoum, which can be as long as you like. Lines repeat, and the poem ends where it began. Look up the form and write a pantoum about a journey from home and back again—like the Lord of the Rings, but shorter!
  • At the triumphant beginning of the tragic myth of Oedipus, he manages to enter the city of Thebes because he correctly answered the Sphinx’s riddle. Imagine a distant descendent of the Sphinx who has parked herself outside your home town or outside a major city. She is devouring anyone attempting to enter who can’t answer her rhymed riddle in a rhymed answer. Traffic is blocked halfway around the world. Your MC answers the riddle with a poem and then asks the new Sphinx a rhymed riddle in return. Write the riddles and the story.
  • Look up the ballad form and write a summary, either of the next story you plan to write or of one you’ve written, as a ballad.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Creative Voice Meld

On June 22, 2020, Katie W. wrote: How do you combine your writing voice with someone else’s? My grandmother left around fifteen notebooks of information for a novel, and I really want to finish it, but I’m worried about keeping it true to her while, at the same time, keeping it true to my own writing. Essentially, what I’m wondering is how do you finish something someone else started?

I love this question!

Since it came in more than a year ago–Katie W., where are you in the project?

And I’m so sorry you lost your grandmother!

In one of my favorite classes in poetry school, we had to read a poetry collection every week and write an analysis and an imitation poem. One of the poets we read was Matthea Harvey, whose work is only for adults. The collection I read is ironic and tragic.

When I wrote my imitation poem, I felt like she took up residence in my brain and I was just taking dictation. But that mind meld I felt didn’t happen automatically (and Harvey herself might not think I had imitated her at all). I read her poems exceedingly closely. Her lines are long. She uses punctuation rarely, and the reader has to figure out what’s going on when the end of one unpunctuated sentence becomes the beginning of the next. She loves alliteration and detail and images. There are surreal surprises.

I did the same analysis of the work of the other assigned poets and felt that I always caught something of their work, but never as close as I thought I came with Harvey.

Katie W. Says she has “information” rather than manuscript pages. When I write notes, I don’t craft my sentences. I leave them as they come out, plop! Anyone hoping to imitate my fiction voice wouldn’t find my notes useful. So, to study notebooks of information for writing voice may not work. But maybe Katie W. has some fiction-writing of her grandmother’s or even letters or emails that she spent time drafting. The point is to concentrate on whatever reflects the voice of the writer we want to merge with.

We look at sentence length. Are the sentences short, long, or varied? Same for paragraphs. Word choice: many syllables or one-to-two? Is her writing direct, or does she circle around? Serious or funny? Easy to understand, or does she make the reader work? If we’re looking at fiction, is there much dialogue? Description? Detail? Images? Sounds? Smells? What’s the ratio between showing and telling?

Then we can try a paragraph, assess, revise. We can take something that is to happen in the novel and write a little bit of it as a scene, consider it, revise. Once we’ve analyzed our model’s writing, we know how to approach the revision.

Obviously, I don’t know Katie W.’s grandmother, and you probably know I have no children. But I’m old enough to be a grandmother, or even a great-grandmother. I like the idea of a grandchild picking up a beginning of mine or an idea and running with it. This is all speculative of course, but I’d want the grandchild, grown up or not, to enjoy themself and not be worried about whether or not I would approve. This is how I feel about my prompts on the blog–have fun, and save what you write. I also am perfectly happy if people change the prompts to suit what they want to write.

On the other hand, wanting to honor a memory is worthy. If we want to, we can do that.

When the Disney Press asked me to write a book (which became three books) in the world of the fairies of Peter Pan by James M. Barrie, I wanted to respect the original, which was one of my favorite books when I was little.

I found the imitation astonishingly hard, really impossible. Barrie is a such a supple writer! He can start a sentence heading west, twist it a quarter turn, twist again, until it’s facing northeast. I couldn’t figure out how he did it! Take a look for yourself, now that the book has entered the public domain: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/16/16-h/16-h.htm. If you’ve never read the novel, you’re in for a treat–except for the dated parts, some of which are cringe-worthy, like his treatment of native Americans.

I noticed that he uses of course often, so I tossed in the phrase with abandon, the least I could do, and it seems to have become habit now. I kept features of Neverland as much as I could, and preserved the personalities of Peter himself and Captain Hook whenever they appeared.

But I also made artistic choices. Barrie uses direct address, meaning he speaks to the reader, and I didn’t want that, so I didn’t–or I don’t remember doing it.

We can decide what our priority is too, which may be honoring a beloved grandmother even if the best story isn’t the result. We can write more than one story, too, one true to the original and one striking out on our own. If family members are interested in the project, one version can be for them and another for a wider readership.

One more thing, which I think I’ve said here before: Imitation is an exceedingly valuable skill for a writer. To do it well, we have to take apart someone else’s work, put it back together, examine it under high magnification, turn it this way and that in the light, back away, come in close again. We’ll wind up with more tools and a bigger range. We are much richer writers in the end.

Here are three prompts. If you’re so disposed, post what you come up with:

• Here’s a little bit of prose from Shakespeare, Hamlet speaking. Imitate Shakespeare! Write about something that depressed you or about a stomachache. See if you can catch his style:

I have of late—but wherefore I know not—lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercise; and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory. This most excellent canopy the air, look you, this brave o’erhanging, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire—why, it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours.

• Here’s a little bit from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, in which her dry humor is on display. See if you can do something like it, either based on people you know or a few of your characters:

Elizabeth took up some needlework, and was sufficiently amused in attending to what passed between Darcy and his companion. The perpetual commendations of the lady, either on his handwriting, or on the evenness of his lines, or on the length of his letter, with the perfect unconcern with which her praises were received, formed a curious dialogue, and was exactly in union with her opinion of each.

“How delighted Miss Darcy will be to receive such a letter!”

He made no answer.

“You write uncommonly fast.”

“You are mistaken. I write rather slowly.”

“How many letters you must have occasion to write in the course of a year! Letters of business, too! How odious I should think them!”

“It is fortunate, then, that they fall to my lot instead of yours.”

• Write an imitation paragraph of advice on some aspect of writing, say, setting, or anything else–in my voice!

Have fun, and save what you write!

Inventing the Magic, Limiting the Magic

On June 6, 2020, Kit Kat Kitty wrote, Does anyone have any advice on how to create a unique magic system? I’m working on a hard magic* system for my story right now, but so far, I don’t think I’ve come up with anything that makes it very unique, which is something I want since the magic is very important for the story.

So far, I know that the magic was given to the people by the goddess of everything good. If you know magic, you can either create or destroy. (It’s one or the other, not both. Magic users have to choose at some point during their training.) You can only use magic if you have specific runes written on one of your hands (hence the reason why most magic users wear gloves). Even though the Magic was a gift, it was corrupted by the god of chaos, so using it is physically painful, and unless you have a familiar (who prevents you from dying unless it dies), you’re likely to die earlier then you would’ve otherwise.

I guess I’m wondering what else to add. I haven’t been able to come up with any limitations that make sense to me, besides the fact you can only create/destroy, depending on which type of magic you choose. I know the amount of time you spend studying the magic correlates to how well you can use it (which goes for most things in real life anyway) but beyond that, I’m not sure. Is there something about magic systems all of you like to see? Do you have any suggestions?

*For anyone who doesn’t know, a hard magic system has specific rules and limitations that cannot be broken. Hello Future Me has some great Youtube videos about hard magic on Youtube if you want to check them out.

A great discussion broke out.

RedTrumpetWriter: I haven’t read magic systems extensively, but I think that some of the “limitations” could come from the reaction of nonmagic, or even magic users. What I mean is, do they admire magic users or are they afraid? If they fear them then they would probably create laws or ways of stopping magic users from practicing. For the magic itself I think if it physically harms users that would clearly be a limitation in not only how much or how often you could use without really damaging yourself and if it leaves physical effects like disfigurement it could cause other problems, especially if magic users are feared and have a limp or something would give them away. Also, depending on your characters, they may have sort of self-imposed limitations because they want to use their gifts for good even though they are corrupted so you could do something like what Gail does in Ella Enchanted and have people refuse to do “big magic” for fear of doing more harm than good.

Writeforfun: I like the explanation behind what you’ve got so far. It sounds pretty cool!

And sorry, no advice – but to answer you question on what I like seeing as a reader, I definitely agree that I like there to be limitations! The one thing I can’t stand is when magic is unlimited, because I never understand why it can’t be used to solve all the problems – for the good guys OR the bad guys.

I don’t know what exactly it is in your world that the magic allows you to create or destroy, but as a reader, I think I’d appreciate it most if it were clearly limited. Perhaps you can only learn to create (or destroy, whichever the case may be) one type of substance at a time – like, say, wooden objects. So, say your magic user has studied and learned to create wooden objects; but maybe at the climax they’re facing a dragon with scales that can only be pierced by aluminum. As a reader, I’m still worried about them – and I’m also not yelling at you, the author, saying “why not just create a really cool aluminum partizan and stab the dragon already!”

Sorry, that’s not a very good example! But do you know what I mean? I think I, the picky reader that I am, would still be fine with some people gaining the power to create/destroy other types of objects through more training (especially if it means they have to become monks, or something, and give their entire lives over to their study – which would require some pretty major sacrifices on their part). I just don’t like it when everyone has that kind of unlimited power – or has access to someone with that kind of power. In those cases, I’m mostly either not worried for the characters, or annoyed by all the plot holes popping up because the author forgot about their own characters’ magical abilities!

Kit Kat Kitty: It’s funny because your two examples- the monks and the dragons- are actually kind of relevant to my story. Dragons are the main enemy and monks are a significant part of the plot! Your idea to make it so they can only create/destroy certain things depending on what they study was very helpful. I’ve considered something like it in the past, and I’ll probably end up using it! Thank you!

NerdyNiña: This reminds me of a Doctor Who episode. The Doctor has his sonic screwdriver that can do basically anything. It opens doors, scans for alien tech, whatever. But it can’t do anything with wood. So in one episode, there are aliens made out of wood. He can’t do anything about it.

Even the Doctor and his sonic screwdriver have limitations.

Kit Kat Kitty: Thanks for giving me some suggestions! You made me think about my world more. I had always figured because most magic users are evil (regardless of which form of magic they use) all magic users are disliked, but I realized that should affect the story more than just being a casual fact. My characters will have to go out of their way to hide the fact they have magic, and wearing gloves all the time probably won’t work. Thanks for the suggestions!

I’m so glad the blog writers’ ideas were helpful!

And I’m with Writeforfun that what Kit Kat Kitty presented us sounded mighty good from the get-go! Original and with limitations!

Of course I wondered if the magic in my fantasies is hard or soft, and I’m not sure. I looked up Brandon Sanderson on magic, and I like what he says. Here’s a link to his first law, and from there you can go on to his second and third: https://www.brandonsanderson.com/sandersons-first-law/.

I think more about magical objects and magical creatures than about magic wielded by humans. But a main character and a few others in the first half of Sparrows in the Wind, my forthcoming novel about the Trojan War, have the power of prophecy, which has a few important limitations that I spell out. I guess that’s hard magic.

The way I work it may be relevant. As in the Greek myth, the main character, Cassandra, and her twin, Helenus, are given the gift of prophecy by Apollo, the god of truth. However, Apollo curses Cassandra’s gift so that no one believes her. Helenus’s gift isn’t cursed.

In examples of future sight that I’ve seen in movies or read in novels, the prophetess or prophet goes into a trance and receives a vision of what’s going to happen at a particularly pivotal moment. Then the writer gets to decide whether it’s a true vision or not. Sometimes it is; sometimes it isn’t, and the decision is all up to us. Too convenient, say I, allowing us to conjure up tension without really having to work for it.

So I went a different way. You’ll see if you read the book.

The point for Writeforfun’s question and any other about magic and world-building is that we always have to have an eye out for out plot, which depends on conflict and character. What magic will support our plot and make matters hard for our MC? For example, everything would fall apart in “Snow White” if the evil queen had a magic potion that made her eternally the most beautiful. Or if she had Dorothy’s magic shoes and no magic mirror, she could be transported to Snow White, but she’d have no reason to harm her. Also, the magic mirror is awful for Snow White because she doesn’t know it exists–and there’s nothing magical about ordinary ignorance though it contributes mightily to the plot, reminding us to exploit non-magic too.

Let’s look again at what Kit Kat Kitty tells us, which is crawling with plot possibilities and, I think, with ways to increase the limitations:

So far, I know that the magic was given to the people by the goddess of everything good. If you know magic, you can either create or destroy. (It’s one or the other, not both. Magic users have to choose at some point during their training.) You can only use magic if you have specific runes written on one of your hands (hence the reason why most magic users wear gloves). Even though the Magic was a gift, it was corrupted by the god of chaos, so using it is physically painful, and unless you have a familiar (who prevents you from dying unless it dies), you’re likely to die earlier then you would’ve otherwise.

Lots of questions pop up:

• Who decides what’s good? Good for the goose isn’t always good for the gander.

• Are the gods and goddesses available? Do they intercede? Can chaos be used for good? What are the possibilities?

• Can creators and destroyers work together? Are they always in opposition? Is one good and the other bad, or not?

• Runes! Omigosh, they pulse with possibilities! Who writes them? Are you born with them? Can you read them? Can you change them? Add to them? Erase them? Do you know what they say? Is the meaning clear? What if the being who wrote them had a bad handwriting? Does it matter if the runes are on the right hand or the left? If the character is a lefty or a righty?

• What kind of familiar? How does the familiar keep you from dying? What kills the familiar? Why does one person have a familiar and another one doesn’t? Does a familiar help you the way you want to be helped or does it sometimes help you the way it thinks you should be helped?

• And many more. We can, naturally, make a list.

Let’s start with limitations. If we dig into everything good, for example, the goddess may, like the fairy Lucinda, have her own ideas about what that is. Or she may not be as dreadful as Lucinda, but she plays favorites or is forgetful. Our characters have to work around her limitations.

Or maybe creators and destroyers can work together in theory, but they can’t be in the same place at the same time. Or if a destroyer destroys something, say elevators, a creator can’t make a workaround, like escalators.

As I’ve said here before, uniqueness in a big way is probably unattainable. We all build on what’s come before, and big uniqueness might be incomprehensible to everybody but us. Originality and surprise, I think, come from our details. Also from the way the magic works in our plot, the ways our characters dream up to use magic–and the way their plans go wrong.

Here are three prompts:

• A brother and sister, separated at birth, don’t know about each other. Both work at the same castle, the brother as an under-butler, the sister as the laundress’s helper. She’s chosen to be a destroyer, and the king’s shirts and the queen’s petticoats are never stained. He’s a creator, and the king never notices when his shoe soles wear thin because they’re replaced with identical new ones before the damage gets bad. Both think they’re meant for better things, however, and they begin to experiment, with troubling results. Write the story.

• The evil magician in Aladdin creates evil robot genies who are activated only by his ring and his lamp. When Aladdin, a destroyer, comes into possession of both and starts making wishes, they all go awry. Yes, the genies make him a palace and he wins the princess, but their new home isn’t anywhere you’d really want to live, and terrible things happen inside it. However, he doesn’t realize what the source of the problem is. He adores his wife and sees that they’re both in danger. Write the story.

• The runes on your MC’s hand start changing. When she casts familiar spells, she gets unfamiliar results. The problem is, she’s physician to the king who is desperately ill. Write the story.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Shy and Lovable

On May 25, 2020, Writeforfun wrote, Any suggestions for writing lovable introverts?

I am struggling with one of my main characters in my story, the only one who is an introvert. I love writing him because he’s basically me when I was his age, so it comes so easily! He is petrified of attention, introspects constantly and has a little too much imagination, has profound thoughts but has a hard time putting them into words, reads constantly, is a very good listener, is extremely self-conscious, is extremely empathetic, and has a dry sense of humor. My other two are extroverts – one is moody and overly dramatic with a witty comeback for everything, and the other is an impetuous cheerleader who always acts before thinking, resulting in a lot of either funny or awkward situations.

So far, I’ve let two people read some of the story, and their consensus is that they don’t like my introvert. When asked why, one said it’s because he makes them sad. I don’t know if this is just because he is being compared to these two extroverts and the extroverts are outshining him by nature, or if his personality just isn’t a fun one to read. I suppose I could change him to be more like the other two, but I can’t figure out a way to do it that doesn’t feel forced, and I also want them to remain distinctive. I think the biggest difference between him and the other two is how much less funny he is than they are. There’s a lot of dark stuff going on in this story, so I’ve been using a lot of humor to keep things light, and most of the humor comes from them.

I’m trying to think of other books that have done introverts well, but off the top of my head I can only seem to think of extroverts. Or at least really well-adjusted introverts. This little guy has been isolated most of his life, so I really don’t want to make him seem falsely well-adjusted just to make him more fun. Perhaps I could make use of his awkwardness to make him funnier, but I’m not sure whether that would be a good funny or a bad funny, and he is always really embarrassed about it afterward, which I’m afraid kind of kills the mood.

My question is, any suggestions for writing lovable super-introverts? Any thoughts on what I’m doing wrong?

A lot of you had ideas.

Fiona: Well, I personally think that normally extroverts are easier to connect with because we know them better because they put themselves out there. One thing you can do is dip into the thoughts of the character. Put them into situations that force them out of their shell, make it uncomfortable for them to go outside their comfort zone, but make sure the experience shows their personality. Just help him along, let the readers get to know him.

Erica: Could you have him confide in one of the extroverts, and then have one of them act on what he told them? Ex. If there were someone he liked, he told one of the other two, and they set him up with her, then his response could reveal some of his personality. As for literary introverts, try Turtle in the Wings of Fire series (MG and up). He’s an important character in book 8 and narrates book 9, but the story arc starts in book 6. (I have to recommend some of my favorite series occasionally, after all.)

NerdyNiña: Hello Universe by Erin Entrada Kelly has a super shy, introverted narrator. He has trouble speaking up in his family of extroverts. He wants to, and you, the reader, want him to. It would be a good guide, I think.

Back to Writeforfun: I’ve been trying to do some research on what might make introverts lovable, but I’ve mostly only found information on what introverts can do to “fix” themselves and become extroverts (suddenly my introverted self is feeling extremely inadequate and realizing that most of the world sees this as a problem, not a lovable character trait!). I think I’m going to stop researching along those lines for my own sake! Guess I’ll just keep experimenting. I do dip into his thoughts a lot in all of his POV chapters (it may be why he’s my favorite to write – possibly also why he’s my problem child – because I give myself free reign for introspection in his chapters!), but I’m thinking maybe he’s just too serious compared to the other two. I think I’ll see if I can play with these suggestions mentioned, and try to find some way to make him funnier or at least a little less serious.

Christie V Powell: Uh, that’s annoying! We don’t need to be fixed!

I’m still doing some research. One website pointed out that often, we don’t realize that a character doesn’t speak a lot or is introverted because we’re in their POV and see their thoughts (Harry Potter was the example they used).

Another article suggested Jane Eyre, Mr. Darcy, Katniss Everdeen, and Jonathan from Stranger Things (haven’t seen that one). Matilda and Bilbo Baggins also come up a lot.

I like writing introverted characters because it’s easier to have them think something instead of say it, when saying something aloud would cause problems. It also reminds me to use internal dialogue. I’m looking up some examples from my WIPs:

She thought about adding that the nearby royals had the resources to defeat a new Stygian, but decided she didn’t dare reveal how close they were to the Summit.

Keita was tempted to see if Indie would talk to her, but she decided against asking. Would (love interest) be more or less annoyed if Indie obeyed her?

Keita thought about asking what (villain) called her, and decided she didn’t want to know.

Did he have any siblings? Besides her, of course, if they did share a father. She decided not to ask, not when he kept glaring at her. What was he mad about?

Leo leaned against the wall of the tavern. His eyes went vacant and his lips twitched. Walker smirked but decided not to point out that he looked half-drunk himself.

I did a find word for “decided,” and somehow a whole bunch of introverted internal dialogue came up. Make of that what you will.

Here’s a list of tropes that all have to do with introverts:
https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/IntroversionTropes

These are great!

I have shy moments, but mostly I’m an extrovert, and when I wrote introverted Addie in The Two Princesses of Bamarre, I needed help from my critique buddy Joan Abelove, who is very shy–because, out of ignorance, I had made Addie almost catatonic. One of the things I did, following Joan’s advice, was to offset her helpless thoughts with useful ones, and I notice Writeforfun, a professed introvert, doing the same thing, like this hopeful idea above: Guess I’ll just keep experimenting. The thought doesn’t subtract a whit from the introversion, but it gives agency. Our introvert can take action and fail sometimes and succeed other times.

Since we love him, we can recruit one of our extroverted characters to love him too. We can imagine his pal, Grace, saying something like, “You are the deepest thinker I know. I depend on you to see around the corners.” Readers, seeing with Grace’s eyes, will find the good points our introvert is too shy to bring to the fore.

Introverted Jane Eyre, mentioned above by Christie V Powell, has a backbone made of iron. When she’s sure of a thing, she acts according to the dictates of her conscience. Our introvert can be like Jane Eyre or have other qualities that make him shine–whether or not anyone notices. After all, other characters don’t have to appreciate him; only the reader does. He can be loyal, generous (anonymously), kind, and he can be these things and many more on the positive side without being rehabilitated into well-adjusted-ness. He can be a doer. Because he’s so quiet, people don’t notice him, but when they turn around, the task he’s been set has been done–magnificently.

Jane Eyre, again, narrates her eponymous novel, and the reader discovers what a sharp observer she is. If our introvert is telling the tale, he’ll reveal in his thoughts the sides of himself that other characters will take a long time learning.

He can accept the slings and arrows that come his way because he’s shy–up to a point. When he explodes, the reader, who’s suffered the injustices along with him, will cheer.

Writeforfun mentions that he loves to read. Joy is a delight wherever it pops up. We can show his happiness in a book, or in any other of his pleasures.

Because, as a shy person, he may be overcritical of himself, he may have sympathy for others and may forgive them for flaws he won’t forgive in himself. Sympathy is an attractive quality, and readers are likely to admire it.

He may be contemplative rather than active, which gives him opportunities to appreciate. He can be a lover of beauty. He’s the one to notice that another character has changed her hairstyle and it looks great, or that there are buds on a hydrangea bush that hasn’t bloomed in years.

I’m wondering about the criticism by Writeforfun’s readers that her introvert isn’t likable because he makes them sad, which some how has me thinking about Hamlet the character, not Hamlet the play. I’m not crazy about him, because he makes me impatient and tires me. I don’t sympathize with his indecision, which goes on for longer than I can tolerate (in my memory anyway–I haven’t read the play in a long time). In the famous “to be or not to be” speech, he goes on and on about how terrible life is, how mistreated his imagined person is, who stays alive only because he fears that the afterlife may be worse. I would tolerate his monologue better if he occasionally dropped in something good, like that the cloud overhead is tinged with pink from the dawn and how pretty it is, and, maybe, that the dead can’t see it. I doubt that Writeforfun’s introvert is anything like Hamlet, but maybe he–and our introverts and less-than-lovable characters need to vary their thoughts and feelings a bit while remaining true to their essential selves. After all, none of us is just one thing. We’re introverts or extraverts, but we’re also good at miniature golf and nobody can beat us at making a pie from scratch, and if we try to sew on a button, we’re likely to have thread running through our nose before we’re done.

Then there’s plot. How does our introvert fit into it? Can we have him do something that helps the cause, that he’s uniquely qualified to contribute because he’s an introvert? We can look for moments like this. We can make a list! Maybe he’s quiet when the extroverts are exploding, so he notices something that turns out to be crucial. The reader blinks, rereads three pages, and breaks out grinning. Yay, Team Introvert!

Here are three prompts:

• Your two MCs, an extrovert and an introvert, meet at a silent meditation retreat. By glances and body language alone they communicate their interest in each other. Over the course of a week, they become close (romantically or platonically) without speaking. Write the week, remembering that one is still shy and the other is still outgoing, and then write the scene outside the gate of the retreat campus once the weekend is over and they are able to speak.

• Sleeping Beauty is an over-the-top extrovert, who narrates her dreams out loud for a hundred years. The prince is an introvert. Write the scene when he finds her.

• Rapunzel, an introvert, values solitude. Even the witch’s visits tire her out. The witch keeps her supplied with the kind of books she loves, and she spends most of her days happily reading. Still, she wishes for friendship from the kind of kindred spirit she’s read about in Anne of Green Gables. The prince, who is a little hard of hearing, walks by her tower every day without realizing anyone is in it. She watches him, notices how kind he is in many little ways (which you can think up) and becomes convinced he’s the kindred spirit who will give her companionship without overstimulating her. The problem is how to reach out to him. Does she dare? Write the story.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Meet Un-cute

On May 6, 2020, Christie V Powell wrote, If you were reading a book with two POVs, a girl and a guy of comparable age, would you expect them to become a couple? The genre is fantasy.

A conversation followed:

Erica: Unless they were related, already interested in other people, younger than about ten, or vast distances apart, yes. On the other hand, I like to be surprised. Do what you feel like is best for your story.

Katie W.: I would expect them to, but I would also be happy if they weren’t, because I get tired of having every story I read be a romance. I think the comment thread about romance vs. friendship a couple posts back made some good points about this.

Melissa Mead: Yes, but I’d love to see more books that subvert that expectation.

Raina: If it’s a MG book? Maybe. In that case, though, unless it’s really upper MG (bordering on YA, like the later Percy Jackson and Harry Potter books), I wouldn’t expect there to be a lot of romance, even if they do end up together. More like subtle crushes or really strong friendships that develop into something more, not “you’re the love of my life and I will spend the rest of my life with you” type of romance found in some YA books.

If it’s YA? Yes, almost certainly. Not so much because I personally need to have romance in all of my books (honestly I’d love to see more strong, platonic friendships in YA), but because 99% of YA books have some kind of romantic relationship between the main characters, and it’s pretty much a genre convention at this point. I can think of one book that subverts this–THIS SAVAGE SONG by Victoria Schwab, which is also a Fantasy featuring dual male/female POVS who go on an adventure together but end up as close friends, not lovers–but that’s an exception among the norm.

That being said though, you don’t have to purposefully follow OR deliberately subvert genre conventions by any means. Romance is great when it’s well written, but platonic male/female friendships are also something I’d love to see more of.

Christie V Powell: This one is supposed to be adult. There are definitely romance subplots, but they each have one with someone else, not each other. They’ve mentioned that they might be related, but I haven’t decided if they are half-siblings, or if they aren’t, or if I just leave it a mystery and no one ever knows for sure.

SilverSky: Me and my friend are actually going to do this and each write a P.O.V! They definitely won’t be interested in each other. They are around the age of 14 and 15 I think (haven’t started writing it quite yet. Quarantine got in the way of getting together).

If I were reading the book, I think I would still have them just be close friends. If you’re talking adult characters then I would probably expect a closer bond.

Of course, if one (or both) is gay, the reader won’t expect romance.

I once asked a dental hygienist if the first thing she noticed when she met people was their teeth. She said Yes! and added that when she and her ex-husband got serious, she told him she couldn’t marry him unless he dealt with the disaster going on in his mouth–which he did, and the marriage lasted long enough for their daughter to grow to adulthood.

(I wondered how she could tolerate working on me and my tan teeth, caused by my weird habit for many years of chewing cinnamon sticks.)

To me, the heart of Christie V Powell’s question is how we create and manage reader expectations, especially about characters.

In our narration, we can quickly shut down a romanic expectation with something like this: Stacey’s friends were always intense, tightly focused, twitching with energy. But for romance, she preferred laid-back, go-with-the-flow types.

Then, when Brian, wound like a spring, shows up, the reader understands he’s only friend material.

For each of our two POV characters we can think of what would be romantic deal-breakers. Evie in Ogre Enchanted, for example, couldn’t fall for someone with a weak sense of humor.

The deal-breaker could be physical, though we have to be careful with that, because we don’t want readers to feel bad about the way they look. My first date, maybe at the age of fourteen, was with a boy who was at least six-feet-two and I never made it to five feet. I had to reach up to hold his hand. Nerds that we were, we went to a museum in New York City, and on our way there, people from two blocks away pointed at us and laughed. This isn’t to my credit, but I was too embarrassed ever to date him again.

Again from Ogre Enchanted, which explores romantic attachment, Evie asks her mother what made her mother fall in love with her father, who died before the beginning of the book. Part of her mother’s answer is about the tingle she felt with him. We can use absence of some variant on tingle to let readers know that love between two characters is not to be.

In my beloved Pride and Prejudice, any thoughts the reader may have of romance between Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Collins, heir to Mr. Bennett’s estate, are dashed even before he shows up, by his letter, which is pompous and odd. This exchange between Elizabeth and her father follows his reading of the letter:

        “‘He must be an oddity, I think,’ said she. ‘I cannot make him out.—There is something very pompous in his style.—And what can he mean by apologising for being next in the entail?—We cannot suppose he would help it if he could.—Could he be a sensible man, sir?’
        “‘No, my dear, I think not. I have great hopes of finding him quite the reverse. There is a mixture of servility and self-importance in his letter, which promises well. I am impatient to see him.’”

Mr. Collins’s goose is cooked!

By contrast, let’s look at this from Jane Eyre, following her first meeting with Mr. Rochester, when he’s fallen off his horse and she doesn’t yet know who he is:

    “The new face, too, was like a new picture introduced to the gallery of memory; and it was dissimilar to all the others hanging there: firstly, because it was masculine; and, secondly, because it was dark, strong, and stern.”

Oh, my! The reader is primed in a single sentence for the cosmos-shaking love that follows.

(Just saying, I adored Jane Eyre in my teens, but when I revisited it decades later, my opinion of Mr. Rochester plummeted.)

So, we guide reader expectation in romance just as in everything else, like world-building, and, like world-building, the sooner the better. Our introduction to Mr. Collins and to Mr. Rochester don’t come early in the respective novels, but they come early in their entry to the story. We don’t want to give the reader a chance to form a different idea, which we’ll have to labor to reverse.

I don’t mean there can’t be surprises. Jane Austen doesn’t guide the reader’s idea of another possible romantic interest, Mr. Wickham, immediately. She wants to surprise the reader. That decision will depend a lot on our plot.

As always, we convey expectations to our readers through narration or thoughts or dialogue or feeling, or a combination of more than one. Anticipation about Stacey’s romantic interests are set up in my first example through narration. We can even use narration to address the reader the old-fashioned way: Dear Reader, do not expect love to spring up between these two. Yes, there will be mutual respect, but their romantic destinies lie elsewhere.

The P&P example uses dialogue, the Jane Eyre one thoughts (or narration–I’m not sure). But we can use thoughts. Here’s Brian: I walked home and ran over the afternoon in my mind. Stacey was nice, sure, but every five seconds she scratched her neck or her arm or rubbed her nose, like an itchy dog, except dogs are adorable no matter what they do.

Not promising.

Here’s Stacey’s feelings: Brian ordered spaghetti and dug in. Stacey’s stomach turned when he slurped, when spaghetti strands wriggled from his mouth, when red sauce dribbled down his chin.

Hard to get past that.

Christie V Powell, if you continued with your project since you asked your question, how did it turn out? Was there a romance?

Here are three prompts:

• Dr. Watson has broken multiple bones in a fall from his horse. He sends in his sister to sub for him as Sherlock Holmes’s assistant. Write their meeting from his point of view and show that he’s drawn to her.

• Using the scenario above, now write their meeting from her point of view and show that, while she admires Sherlock’s mind, she finds him romantically unappealing.

• Write the scene that follows the one above, in which Holmes deduces the impression he’s made and works to change it. Decide whether or not he succeeds.

Have fun, and save what youwrite!

The Remodel

On April 22, 2020, Writeforfun wrote, I’ve just finished my current book! Or well, the first in what seems to have turned into a series. There’s lot’s more to go, but I’ve come to the end of this one, at least. So, yeah, happy dance! But I’m wondering – I know there are many posts on here about editing so I’m definitely going to go back over all of those – but I’m just wondering, any opinions on the best way to edit a first draft that has changed a LOT since the beginning and is rather a bit of a jumbled mess? I pantsed this book, just to give it a try (I’m usually a planner), and the story has meandered and changed a ton since the beginning, and didn’t really get on a particular track until about halfway through. Normally when I finish a book, I’ll go through from the beginning of the manuscript and just tweak things as I go (which works, since the plot hasn’t really wavered from the beginning so I’m usually only making minor changes); but this time I’m talking major changes – entire characters and plot points that I dropped halfway through, 50-page events that I need to add or remove, or shuffle or swap with different portions of the story – things like that. It’s daunting! How do you keep it all organized? I’m almost wondering if it would be better to start a brand new document and just re-write the story…although, I don’t really want to do that because I ended up accidentally making it about 500 pages long (though hopefully I’ll manage to cut that down a bit)!

I’m just wondering if there’s any particular great process for editing a book that needs a LOT of changes! Advice? I know some people are great at editing and really enjoy it. I am not, and do not – so if you have a process that works well I’d love to hear about it.

Two of you wrote back:

Christie V Powell: One thing I’ve been doing with my WIP is using Word’s styles/headings feature and labeling each scene, chapter, and act. It makes it easier to see structure at a glance and to figure out how to move things around. Another tip: save a new copy every time you start a major draft. It gives you more freedom to experiment (I copied Gail’s suggestion from “Writing Magic” about putting numbers after each draft, although the number of drafts I need has been getting smaller as I keep writing).

Erica: If you’re normally a planner, then I would suggest writing an outline of your story using whatever method you like, and then rewriting individual pieces to fit the outline better. That way, it’s easier to stay on track and you’re less likely to end up making more big dramatic changes without realizing it.

Congratulations for finishing! I hope I said that at the time too!

As I’ve said often, I love to revise. It’s my favorite part.

I like my advice from Christie V Powell’s lips! Versions are super helpful because nothing is lost. When the change is ultra-big, I rename the document so the revision and the earlier incarnation are easier to find, like one version may be called Wolf friend 3. The hugely changed version might be Wolf no friend 1–because I took out the friendship. Or, often when I’ve started revising for my editor, I might name the next version Wolf RB edit 1 (her initials). When I’m completely done and the manuscript is beyond even copy editing, I can count my versions. Many versions means this was a tough book to write. I find that satisfying to know.

I agree with Erica that an outline is likely to be helpful. It doesn’t matter that the book is written. An outline helps us see what we have. For me, the outline would go chapter by chapter, summarizing what happens in each one in a few sentences. When we think about what to revise, we can use highlighter so that what we need to do stands out.

A timeline may be useful too. Depending on the book, I’ve used them during revision–and while writing.

Also, a character-by-character description may show us how our cast fits together and which ones are essential and which can be cut. Combined with an outline, the descriptions will show consistencies and inconsistencies in their actions.

For me, another reader is important, especially at the stage Writeforfun is describing. When my manuscript is big and unwieldy, I don’t know what I’ve got, what the most important threads are, what’s working, and what isn’t. A good reader, whether or not the person is a writer, can help us see our book fresh. We may get confirmation that what we think are the problems really are, or we may be surprised. Either way, we’re learning.

As I’ve also said here many times, I almost always toss more than a hundred pages during a revision, so I think we should be willing to make big cuts. As long as we’ve saved the old version, we can be intrepid. It’s astonishing what I thought I needed and how much I discover I can do very well without.

Also, some parts may grow. We are likely to find places that are scant on detail, or where we haven’t sufficiently revealed our MC’s thoughts and feelings.

Writeforfun mentions that her plot gets on a particular track halfway through. We can consider whether the earlier off-track parts should be part of this story, which maybe should start where it finds its way. The deleted pages can be fodder for other books later or earlier in the series. Out of one, many. Cool!

The popular wisdom is to put a manuscript aside for some time, a few days or weeks, in order to get perspective. If we go back to it too quickly, we may be so invested in it we can’t see it clearly. But when my manuscript is more than two hundred pages long, I generally jump right back in, because I don’t remember the beginning well enough to endanger my objectivity.

When the macro editing is done, it’s time for line edits, the part I love most. Do my chapters end in the right place, either in a moment of excitement or in a brief rest? Am I varying my sentence beginnings and the sentences themselves, like, do I keep stringing together independent clauses connected by and or but? Are there words I’m overusing? Can I cut adjectives and adverbs, the weakest parts of speech, like very and almost?

I know I’m done when I find myself changing sentences and then un-changing them.

Here are three prompts:

• Your MC, a book doctor hired to rehab a murder mystery, realizes that her client (who wrote the book that needs work) had his fictional detective miss an important clue, which points to a different perpetrator. After she makes the change, a stranger visits her in the middle of the night. Write the story.

• This is a tad sad: Your MC has invented a time machine so that she can return to the night thirty years earlier when a fire killed her father’s first wife. Sadness at the loss haunted her dad even after he married her mom–and soured their marriage. Your MC, at the risk of never being born, is determined to prevent the fire and save the fiancée. Write the story.

• Your MC, a specter–but the good kind–performs for kids’ birthday parties, creating delightful environments for children to have fun in. And when the party ends, there’s nothing to clean up. However, another specter–the bad kind–is bent on destroying her. The bad one shows up at one of her gigs after another and terrifies the tykes. Your MC suspects the baddie of planning something much worse for the mayor’s son’s party. Write the story.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Time Waits for No One

On April 13, 2020, Clare H. wrote, Any suggestions on a good way to show that time has passed in a book? Currently, my character is twelve, but I want him to be 17 or 18 by the time I hit my climax, that way readers will see him grow. So far I am trying to show that the seasons are changing and I have thought about using holidays almost as checkpoints.

Three of you weighed in:

Erica: Depending on what else you have going on, you might want to put in a big time jump somewhere, such as skipping directly from 14 to 16. I would suggest either making the passage of time fairly slow or fairly fast. If you do put in a big time jump, though, try to have it occur between chapters. It’s less confusing for the readers that way.

Katie W.: I vote for the big time jump. As a reader, I find it much less confusing than simply speeding up time, (i.e., skipping ahead in a movie instead of fast-forwarding.) especially if you can divide the book into parts and have the time jump take place between parts, rather than inside one. A simple “4 years later” (or whatever time interval you want) heading works wonders.

Melissa Mead: Do you want him to go straight from 12 to 17, or show some things happening in between?

Here’s one way I dealt with a big time jump:

“(Juvenile demon) dropped into a hunting crouch beside Malak, who realized with shock that (the youngster) was now as tall as he was. (JD) had changed from a spawnling to a long-legged juvenile before Malak had even thought to notice the transformation. Once, twenty years would have seemed an impossibly long time, but among Aureni years passed almost without notice. He’d lived years upon years, more than a Deeper One could count on hands and feet…”

Thanks, Melissa Mead, for the big-jump demonstration!

I’m with Erica and Katie W. that it’s best not to jump over changes that need to evolve in our story.

I like a direct approach, like seasons and holidays. Chapter headings or book sections can indicate the year–in our world or in a fantasy universe with a different calendar.

Depending on our story, we can use current events rather than years, like Royal Birth, Coronation, Royal Marriage, Assassination, Accession. Not in my case, but in most, we can even use height markers: 4′ 9″, 5′ 2″, etc. Diary entries can work too. July 1, 2008, March 13, 2010, November, 22, 2011. And so on.

We can get creative and have a different character mark the changes, say from a parent to a grandparent in letters, emails, phone calls, texts.

If we’re spanning time with a young MC, we have to think about growth. A twelve-year-old and a seventeen-year-old are different–emotionally, intellectually, and physically. The teenager will have more experience and a broader understanding. For example, if we’re using diary entries, the voice is likely to change over time. And yet, he still has to be the same person, even if the challenges in our plot also cause him to change.

In my opinion, L. M. Montgomery does a great job with this in Anne of Green Gables, one of my childhood faves. At the beginning, Anne speaks at a thousand words a minute with barely time for breath. That fades, though, as she matures. Yet, she remains thoughtful, smart, and imaginative.

These changes will mark time too, more subtly than direct markers, which we’ll probably still need (or I’d still need).

We can list ways our MC may change. Here are a few for starters:
• talkative to quiet, as L. M. Montogomery does it
• quiet to talkative, as our MC becomes more assertive
• incautious to careful
• clumsy to graceful, like Ella after finishing school

What else? List five more.

Then we have to weave these in–draw the reader’s attention to these qualities at the beginning and again later on.

We can also take advantage of plot in the aging of our MC, who at twelve will approach a problem one way, at seventeen another–different, not necessarily improved. We can change the challenges too and raise the stakes.

Having said all this, though, if we can–if our plot lets us–there’s an advantage to having our story happen in a short time, weeks and months rather than years. The advantage is just that it’s a little easier, because we don’t have to work to close the gap, as Clare H. is asking about. LOL: I should talk, because five of my novels progress from my MC’s birth or early childhood to her teen years!

Here are three prompts:

• Intelligent life in the world of your science fiction story is a species that follows the life cycle of a frog: egg, tadpole, frog. It’s a thinking creature every step of the way, but its understanding and temperament change as it goes along. Give your creature a goal or a problem from inception and write its story.

• The evil queen in “Snow White” changes as the story goes along. When the fairy tale opens, she’s beautiful and content; Snow White is barely a blip in her consciousness. After the mirror declares the girl lovelier than she is, she’s filled with rage but not ready to kill Snow White herself, so she commands the hunter to do the dirty deed. When he doesn’t, she’s ready to take over and commit murder. There’s a possible next transformation when she names the punishment that will be inflicted on her (dancing in the red-hot shoes). Write the story in a way that explains the transformations.

• Your MC Marietta is seven when her beloved older sister disappears and she swears to get her back. Your story takes her from seven to fifteen, when she either succeeds or fails definitively. Write the story, showing how she changes as she grows older.

Have fun, and save what you write!