Revealed or Concealed?

On March 25, 2020, NerdyNiña wrote, How do you describe characters? I can see them in my mind, but I don’t know how to get the important details onto the page. Also, I tend to overuse certain phrases: she smiled, he looked up, I turned, etc. How can I describe physical movement and facial expressions more distinctly?

A discussion followed.

Melissa Mead: I don’t always, unless it matters to the story. Ex, the WIP has a major character named Julia. She’s important to the story, one of the people that Malak cares about the most, but aside from noting that she’s one of the few humans he knows, I don’t describe her much at all. Hopefully that allows the reader to identify with her in a world full of angels and demons.

(Ok, you got me curious. On page 341 it says “it sounded like Honored Julia, the voice of this woman he’d never seen, with her freckled, square-jawed face and untidy hair threaded with gray.” And there’s an earlier mention of demon-bite scars on her arm. But I don’t know her eye color, for example.)

So: The first thing is to decide which details matter in the context of the story. Ex, I mention Malak’s gold eyes because neither angels nor demons have eyes that color. What stands out about your character? What causes other people to treat them differently? What makes them special, unusual, honored, or shunned?

A lot will depend on the POV, too. Whose eyes are we seeing this person through? (and ditto for the other senses.)

Me: There are phrases that are almost impossible to avoid, like ones you mention: smile, turn, look up. Getting fancy will seem strange. The reader is likely to just note the action and move on, unperturbed. These are like “said,” which disappears.

Melissa Mead: I was thinking about your question and had another thought about choosing which details to mention. While I don’t remember if I thought this consciously at the time, here are some purposes those particular details about Julia serve: (I also just realized that this and the previous posts are spoilers. Malak’s not positive it’s really Julia at that point, and neither are we. If the book ever does come out, just forget about them, OK? (Actually, knowing her name doesn’t matter THAT much.))

“Square-jawed face”: They’re in a tense situation here, and this woman’s not backing down.
“Freckles and untidy hair”- When Malak first met her, she was a teenager who didn’t always follow the rules.
“threaded with gray”- Now she’s middle aged. She looks older, but Malak doesn’t. (and that’s why knowing her name isn’t too much of a spoiler, because the real question is “How much has she changed, and whose side is she on?”)

NerdyNiña: Right, so the details we include should say something about the character’s personality.

Writing Ballerina: To add to this, the details you mention will also depend on the POV character, or the character who’s noticing them. Mrs. Levine mentions how she does this in… Writer to Writer, I think it is. From THE WISH, her character Wilma loves dogs, so, because it’s through Wilma’s POV, Mrs. Levine describes other characters by relating them to dogs. I can’t quote the exact scene because I sadly don’t own THE WISH, but I know that one girl is described like a Pomeranian, with a sharp laugh and nervous darting eyes (if I got that right).

Other, less noticeable traits can be described like this. Someone who sings may notice people’s voices more. Someone who is an artist may notice the exact shade of someone’s shirt, or the shape of their jaw. This doesn’t necessarily relate to describing people, but I read a book where the POV character had perfect pitch, so they would notice that their gate squeaked in Bb or the dog’s yap was a shrill C. That also brings up the point that the POV character will affect how everything is described, not just the people.

Erica: I have a hard time with this too, especially since I have a hard time noticing/interpreting facial expressions. My only advice is that not everyone notices everything, so your character might not have to.

Thank you, Writing Ballerina, for remembering my ideas! You got it right about the Pomeranian!

These are great! I agree that a good time to drop in a little character description is when the plot will accommodate it.

I watch very little TV or cable news and rarely see a movie. Most of my information about current events, sports, and celebrities comes via radio, so I don’t know what many super-famous people look like. I make them up. For example, the first time I saw immunologist Anthony Fauci, I was astonished. I expected him to have a long, gaunt face, high cheekbones, and hollowed-out cheeks. Certainly not those stick-out ears. Doesn’t matter. I pictured him without any information.

Readers do that too. Sometimes when I read a description of a character that doesn’t match up with the ideas I’ve already formed, my own impression sticks.

In my historical novel A Ceiling Made of Eggshells, the reader picks up from information here and there that my main character Loma is: short, because everyone in her family is; darker-skinned than the Spanish royals; pretty in a way that’s never described; and plump. That’s all I remember, but I just jumped around in the book to see what I can find, and I found that the reader learns that she has thick eyelashes–on page 165. The reader finds out the color of other characters’ eyes, but not Loma’s.

We don’t need to put much in, unless our plot demands it or a character pays attention to appearance.

But we may have a plot reason. In my “Snow White” retelling, Fairest, MC Aza believes she’s ugly, and a good deal of the plot revolves around that. In narration she describes herself unflatteringly. Here’s a snippet: I resembled a snow maid, with a big sphere of a face and round button eyes. She also describes other people to compare them with herself–mostly to make herself feel bad. This is a case of plot and character-driven describing.

The description doesn’t have to be brought about by the thrust of the story. The cause can be a little plot point. In Sparrows in the Wind (which will come out someday), Paris is one of the characters who causes the Trojan War, and he’s the brother of Cassandra, my MC in the first half of the book. They don’t meet until he’s grown up and she’s a teenager. (It’s a long story, which you may know from the mythology.) He describes Cassandra because he wants there to be a strong sibling resemblance, and that’s how the reader finds out she has a strong chin.

If we’re describing a character’s face, we don’t have to touch on every feature. We can even skip the features entirely and say something about his skin or the giant pimple next to his nose.

We can describe characters in narration, either in the thoughts of our POV character or in the voice of an outside narrator.

And we can do it in dialogue, as in Anne of Green Gables, when Gilbert Blythe whispers piercingly, “Carrots! Carrots!”

There other less common ways too–in a diary; a letter; a newspaper report; even in action (think Pinocchio’s nose, for example).

When it comes to describing a character we see clearly in our minds, we can ask ourselves what we see first, what stands out. Say it’s our character’s mouth, which always looks sad. We can start with the mouth then. Maybe it doesn’t turn down but it’s always flat even when something funny or happy or very sad is happening. That flat mouth seems incapable of showing feeling though feeling is clearly there. Or it’s her posture or her height.

We can ask how her character and personality show in her looks or are hidden by them. Maybe she’s secretive, and her lidded eyes give nothing away. Or he’ll believe any lie, betrayed by his rounded eyebrows.

There are other questions we can consider. How is the character different from or like the people around her? How does he resemble (or not) others in his family? What about them do others respond to, positively or negatively? What physical qualities will help or hinder our character as the plot unfolds?

These kinds of questions are likely to take us to surprises, usually a good thing.

Two pitfalls that I can think of to watch out for: 1. Having a character look in a mirror and describe what they see has been done many times, including by me in The Wish. It’s hard to find a fresh way to do it, but if one pops up in our imagination, we can go for it. 2. Stopping the action for a long description of a character’s appearance, a mini infodump. We can do this too, but we need a good reason. For example, lengthy character descriptions are a frequent feature of detective novels, and readers expect them–and clues and red herrings may be wrapped up in them.

As for physical movement, I think simple is fine, unless there is something extraordinary about the way someone moves. We can think about this too when we’re imagining a character. Their nervous nature can come out in their quick movements or be belied by their languor.

Here are three prompts:

• Write a scene or a story based on this: He could read my thoughts and I couldn’t even interpret his expression. This is why telepaths were hated. Even I hated him.

• Write a contemporary “Rumpelstiltskin” in a modern world in which short beings are the underclass.

• Start your story here: Sleeping Beauty opened her eyes, rubbed them, and stared at the prince.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Sharing the Limelight

On March 25, 2020, Kit Kat Kitty wrote, I’ve started plotting a new book out (usually, I’m a pantser, but I’m trying this out), and I’ve run into a bit of a problem. I have two main characters, a boy and a girl. The boy is the actual main character, but the girl is a close second. The premise is that the boy is trying to get to the underworld and retrieve the soul of a man he killed by accident a year ago. (It’s a long story. There are gods in the story, and the boy happens to be the son of the death god, so he accidentally killed someone by touching them.) Anyway, he’s just starting out on his quest when the girl shoots him with an arrow that causes him to fall in love with her (that is also a long story; she didn’t want to, but she was worried her mother would love her less if she didn’t, and her mother is a goddess). The point is, I realized that the girl has just as much growth to go through as the boy, and the whole “love arrow” sub-plot is really only a hindrance for the boy but it’s a big deal for her, so I was wondering if I should make her a POV character as well. I also think her story would be very interesting to write about. Any advice?

A conversation ensued.

Katie W.: Go for it! Writing from someone’s viewpoint (especially 1st person) is a great character-building exercise, even if the scenes get cut later on. Unless you have a deadline, there’s no reason not to experiment. Sure, there will probably be a lot of garbage, but there may very well be some really good stuff, too.

Melissa Mead says: Sounds like a fascinating premise! Good question! Is the story more about him, or them? What would 2 POVs give you that 1 doesn’t?

Kit Kat Kitty: My main concern really comes down to trusting myself to make the right call. If the story ends up being two POVs, it’ll go in a very different direction than if I only do one. I have a nasty habit of deciding to write from a character’s POV just because I think they’re interesting. I suppose it really comes down to what kind of story I want to tell, and I’m thinking that one POV is better, but I think I’ll try writing a few chapters from the girl’s POV too, as Katie W. suggested.

All that said, I’m still not 100% what I’m gonna do or what’s gonna happen.

Melissa Mead: “I have a nasty habit of deciding to write from a character’s POV just because I think they’re interesting.” Sounds logical to me!

Kit Kat Kitty: I guess it does, doesn’t it? I guess I’m just worried about what people will think. I’ve been warned before not to write two POV’s in a story just because I want to, but since I’m in the really early steps, I don’t think it’d do any harm. I guess I just need to remind myself that I write because it’s fun.

Melissa Mead: I think the most important thing is to make it clear when you’ve changed POV, and why. Ex, don’t do it in the middle of a scene, because the reader will get confused.

I agree with Katie W. and Melissa Mead and with Kit Kat Kitty that we write because it’s fun.

Sometimes it isn’t. But we write for the fun times. And some of the fun is in experimentation and the growth that follows.

I’m certainly with Melissa Mead that the story premise is fascinating.

As you probably noticed, this question arrived over a year ago, and Kit Kat Kitty probably finished her story long ago. If you’re reading this, would you let us know how it went?

I’m in favor of experimentation. Timidity puts me to sleep when I’m writing and puts readers to sleep if a timid story manages to get finished.

I’ve written two books from two POVs. The cake in terms of number may be taken by Bat 6, written by National Book Award winner for True Believer (and my friend) Virginia Euwer Wolff, which is told by–count them!–twenty-one first-person narrators. It’s an excellent book and worth reading. Also, you’ll see how she pulled it off.

When we’re thinking about multiple POVs, we need to consider what we’ll gain, and Kit Kat Kitty, in my opinion, makes a good case for trying it. Both characters are children of gods, which affects them differently. The girl adds a complication to the boy’s quest. She reacts one way; he another. There’s a lot to explore in their differences.

My first two-POV book was my Mesopotamian fantasy Ever, which is told in alternating chapters by each POV character, one a mortal girl in the city of Hyte where the people believe in a single god, the other the young god of the winds from the kingdom Akka, where there is a pantheon of gods. The chapters are labeled by who’s telling, so the reader always knows.

It’s a love story, and I don’t think I could have brought the love aspect to life in the sole POV of either of them.

The second is my Trojan War book, Sparrows in the Wind, for which I am waiting (endlessly, according to me) for edits from my editor, who is almost certainly not reading these words. In Sparrows, the first half of the book is told by Cassandra, the seer whose prophecies are never believed. The second half is told nine years later by Rin, an Amazon girl who rides to the aid of Troy with her mom and eleven other Amazon women.

In Sparrows, my initial reason for the two POVs was because Cassandra ages out of childhood while the war continues, so I felt I needed to introduce a fresh girl character. Since this is fantasy, I could have shortened the ten years and stayed with Cassandra, but I wanted to stay as faithful as I could to the established mythology. I didn’t anticipate that the double POV would create a buddy story, and I was happy about that. I’d never written one of those before.

In both stories and in Kit Kat Kitty’s as she’s described it, the POV characters have different backstories and different perspectives, which form their varying responses to events. We can keep that in mind when we consider what we’ll gain from the added complication of more than one first-person narrator.

In Sparrows, for example, Cassandra lives in a society in which women have no freedom. Zero. Except for religious festivals, they rarely even step outside the women’s quarters in their houses. Turned loose in the wild, a Trojan woman wouldn’t last long. On the other hand, an Amazon can fend for herself and better; she lives to hunt, fight, raid villages, and collect spoils. Amazons are contemptuous of so-called “village women” and prefer death to captivity.

Aside from chapter headings in Ever and the passage of time between the two halves in Sparrows, we want readers to always know who’s speaking. In Ever, I tried to make the two voices different. I reasoned that Olus, the god of the winds, would be more educated than a mortal girl, and I tried to give him an advanced vocabulary and to have him think and speak in longer, more complex sentences. I don’t think I succeeded. But when I just opened to pages at random I always knew who was talking. Their history and world view are so different that it affects everything. Besides, since Ever is a love story, each one is usually either speaking to the other or thinking of him or her.

In Sparrows, to differentiate speakers and also for plot reasons, I wrote the first part in the past tense and the second in present. That alone differentiates the two, but also the world views of the two of them have little in common.

These are two strategies for differentiating the POVs. There must be many more. For example, one POV could be told through journal entries, another through live action. One might even be presented in italics.

If we’re working from a traditional tale, like a fairy story, more than one POV will expand its scope and most likely lengthen our page count. We can consider if we want that.

Multiple POVs will also complicate the arc of our story. For pantsers (like me, mostly), that will make the telling more difficult. I would want to come up with a skeletal outline. But this isn’t to say that complete pantsers shouldn’t try it. The pleasure is in the journey!

Here are three prompts:

• Tell “Jack and the Beanstalk” from two POVs, Jack’s and the giant’s. You may have to give the giant a backstory. What were his hopes and dreams when Jack brought him down to earth?

The English version of the tale has this rhyme, which you can read about on Wikipedia: Here’s the rhyme:

I smell the blood of an Englishman,
Be he alive, or be he dead
I'll grind his bones to make my bread.[

If you want to use this, you can bring in geopolitics!

• Tell the fable of the hare and the tortoise from three POVs: the hare, the tortoise, and the fox, who judges the race.

• Go wild. Tell the story of a spelling bee from the POVs of the final seven contestants, a sibling of one of them, and the judge.

Have fun, and save what you write!

A Wild Parade

On March 18, 2020, SilverSky wrote, I’m writing an experimental book where I play with things like gender, age, and the five senses. I’m working on each of these one at a time. I’m almost finished with the gender and age part but, I’m coming up on senses and I’m trying to figure out a balance between writing too many details and not enough. For example, I think too many details would sound like, “I walked into the dark room. I heard the creaking of the floor boards as a large, grey rat ran across the dark oak floor. The room smelled dusty and moldy with a hint of smoke. It was so dusty that I could taste the dirt on my tongue. I placed my hand on a cold, rough table and a floor board began to break beneath me” or is that just enough details? Would it be better to briefly write what I’m trying to say like, “I walked into the dark room. A rat ran across the floor. Everything smelled dusty. I put my hand on a rough table and the floor gave out below me.” Or not?

I guess what I’m trying to ask is, how can you find the balance between too many details and not enough? And, does the book get boring after a lot of details or does it get more interesting?

I know you already answered a few questions about details but I thought maybe you could elaborate on using the 5 senses when writing details.

A discussion broke out.

future_famous_author: I haven’t read a book that went in too much detail in a while… but the book I am reading right now does it in a very interesting way. The author doesn’t usually explain how things look, except characters, but even then only sometimes, but when the character is coming across a new place (castle, house, field, woods, etc.) she seems to explain every detail! While this is a time when details are necessary for the reader to fully understand the story, I don’t think that she should go so in detail with the setting, and then completely forget about other things.
Also, I think that your first example may have been a little too much, but I also think that it could be condensed. Maybe like this: “I walked into the dark, dusty room, smelling of mold and smoke. There was so much dust that it coated my tongue, and the table that I placed my hand upon as a rat ran across the squeaky floorboards. As the squeaking of the rat disappeared, a floorboard began to break beneath me.” I’m sure I’m not any better at description than you are, and there is really no right way, but that’s just how I feel like it should go. Fewer words, almost the same amount of description. Also, if you don’t pile all the description on the reader at once, adding details as a character explores a place, they may be more likely to grasp what you are saying, and to enjoy it.

Melissa Mead: I think the important part is to pick the details that are important to your character. Are they scared of rats? Allergic to dust, mold, or smoke? Is there something special about the table?

future_famous_author: And not just what is important to your character, but what will be important to the plot. Will the rats spread a disease? Will the darkness mean they can’t see their enemy? Does the smoke show that there was a fire, one that killed an important character? Does the dust show that this place has not been occupied in a long time, meaning that whoever they thought might be there is long gone?

Erica: Make sure that all of the details you include are reasonably observable in the situation. For instance, in your first example, you mentioned that the floor was made of oak. Could your character really tell what wood the floorboards were made of in a dark room, or did she already know? Questions like that help me make sure that descriptive details don’t go overboard.

future_famous_author: Oh, I’ve never thought about it that way! That’s interesting!
Also, if your character did mention that it was oak, maybe it’s because she has a past with wood, because a relative taught her what different kinds of wood looked like. Thinking about what a certain character might say about a certain place might help.

Christie V Powell: I’m just throwing in a resource here. I enjoyed “Word Painting: A Guide To Writing More Descriptively” by Rebecca McClanahan. It’s a whole book filled with tips for describing things, and the language she uses, both examples and narration, show that she knows what she’s talking about.

Melissa Mead: I hope it’s ok to throw this in too. I went to HS with the author. He’s a writer, English teacher, and cartoonist, and he illustrated the book with cartoons:

These are terrific! I particularly agree that detail supports both plot and character development.

However, these may be less important in a work of experimental fiction than in other literature. Here’s a link to a Wikipedia article on experimental literature: Writers of experimental fiction may expect more of their readers than other writers do and may not feel the need to create a page-turner. They may believe their readers will make the effort, to be interested in elements other than plot, character, dialogue, and setting–elements, for example, like language and the unexpected.

Such literature is a bit like poetry. Poets expect their readers to linger over a poem, to let it unfold gradually, some poems more gradually than others.

If we’re writing experimental fiction and playing with the five senses, what’s too much or not enough is entirely up to us, and I’d say that in this case more is better. I like the dirt-on-the-tongue example. If we’re exploring taste, for example, we can keep going. The MC tastes the dirt. How does it taste? Salty? Bitter? Chickeny? Does it dissolve or linger? Does it call up memories of other odd tastes? Think of this as Alice following the white rabbit down the hole of the taste of dust. The dust can taste like the color blue. It can make the MC’s tongue swell–or shrink. It can affect her other senses. She can smell in the dirt its history. Readers can be treated to a geology lesson on the origins of the dirt in the last ice age. A woolly mammoth can appear. Enter the other senses, as the MC looks into the small, angry eyes, jumps on the mammoth for a wild ride, feels its coarse hair, aches from the impact as the beast rears, hears its excited squeals.

We can stretch whatever we like. We can report on the vision of the mammoth, which we make up. Its vision is the sense of sight just as ours is. What would it see if it were presented with an eye chart? Our MC can imagine what she looks like to the mammoth.

And so on. Especially in a first draft, I’d suggest writing a lot. Later, we can decide what should stay. For this, I’d suggest choosing the parts we enjoy. The reader can take it or leave it. We shouldn’t judge good and bad for this (or for anything else, as I often say).

We can also go into the sensory ability of our MC, whose senses can be heightened or reduced. In plot terms, the loss of sensation can call forth a crisis, as may its opposite, a painful intensity. That can be the tension or part of it.

I suspect that sensation is a subset of touch. Or maybe it’s another sense. Please weigh in if you have an opinion. I’m thinking of physical pain or a racing heart or the feeling of fever or sneezing or itching, being hot, being chilly. We can delve into those too. Some of these have an emotional side, but the physical is there too. In experimental writing, we can let ourselves run on with sensation.

If we’re not writing experimental fiction, then the amount of detail does matter, mostly when it comes to pacing. Too much detail will slow things down. Two little, and the reader won’t be able to imagine what’s going on and enter into it. Here too, though, I suggest not worrying much in the first draft. Too much is better than too little, because it’s easier to cut than add when we revise. We do want our details to support character development, plot, and setting, as Melissa Mead and future_famous_author suggest.

Also a sense of wonder if we’re writing fantasy–or even experimental fantasy. Wonder can be introduced into any sense: the dirt that tastes like the sky with a teaspoon of honey and smells like peaches; the floorboards that creak out a song; the rat in tap shoes that gives the floorboard’s song a beat; the wall mold that, when a light is lit, depicts a forest scene.

And, as Erica says, we have to make sure that the details are ones that our MC can experience.

Here are three prompts:

• Write a paragraph on the (imagined) taste of dirt. If you can, write a page. Do not taste anything that may harm you! No poisoning for the sake of art!

• From the POV of the woolly mammoth, write its sensations when the human appears. Write at least a page. If you like, turn it into a story.

• Your MC is in on her way to meet a friend for an important reason–you decide why. On the way, by whatever means of transportation you choose, her sensations go haywire: intensify, fade, play tricks. Despite what’s happening to her, she needs to reach her destination. Write the scene.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Better Free, Say I

On March 15, 2020, Raina wrote, Thanks for responding to my question, Gail! It really gave me a lot to think about, especially the part about how the difficult topics might be pushing me to write about them. I think that’s a very real possibility for me, but in that case, I’m running into another question/problem: how do you know/make sure you’re writing about these difficult problems “correctly”? How do you know if you have the skills/knowledge/experience/”right” to write about those problems? And how do you find the courage to write about difficult topics?

Without going into too many details, there have definitely been books recently that tried to tackle difficult topics that, due to the way they were written/presented were…not well received by readers, to say the least. And while opinions about those specific books may vary, as well as the general atmosphere of the publishing/book world currently, I think it’s pretty evident that sometimes writing something can have serious and far-reaching consequences, and good intentions aren’t enough of an excuse. I think there’s a lot of sides to this issue, and I understand why different people have different stances. Maybe what’s happening is good, maybe it’s not, but that’s an ethical discussion for another time.

But in this atmosphere, how do you know whether you should be writing what you’re writing? And how do you get over the fear of “getting it wrong”? And how can you make sure (and get over the fear of) that what you write isn’t misinterpreted by others to mean something you never intended? I know sensitivity readers are becoming more common these days, but even that isn’t failproof, and some issues aren’t directly tied to matters of identity that can be linked to a specific sensitivity reader. I guess what I’m asking is, how do you get out of your comfort zone when you feel like you don’t have a safe place you can fail?

This is a really thorny topic, I know (sorry for the string of downer questions!) but it’s something I’ve been struggling with for a long time.

Two of you weighed in.

Melissa Mead: I know what you mean. I have an unfinished story that’s sat for decades because I’m not sure I’m doing it justice. It’s about a brilliant student wizard who’s become mentally ill. He’s got the power to reshape reality-but he’s not perceiving reality the way most people are, so he kills somebody thinking he’s helping them, and his magic is sex-linked, so if he could be made to use his power to change his sex, he’d stop hallucinating…I decided it was WAY too much for me to take on.

Katie W.: Yes, my current WIP has a similar problem. My dragon MC faces severe prejudice and was abused as a child, but becomes a lovely dragon in spite of it and ends up a queen. And, no matter how I try to squish it, there’s a part of me that’s worried that people will read the story and think I’m writing it from some kind of personal experience, which I am totally not. But since I, possibly the most oblivious reader in the history of books, can see it, I’m worried others will too, even though it was never my intention. Like I said, 99% of me knows I’m probably being paranoid, but the 1% keeps worrying.

Melissa Mead (to Katie W.): Some people probably will think that. I guess the question is: How much would it bother you? Would a random person’s incorrect thoughts hurt anybody? There’s a really lovely essay in Jane Yolen’s book Once Upon A Time (she said) about how once an author puts a story out into the world it becomes each reader’s story, and they may find things in it that the author never intended. Sometimes in wonderful ways, too.

I am absolutely with Melissa Mead (and Jane Yolen) about stories belonging to readers once the stories are out with readers. If someone jumps to the wrong conclusion about something we intended, their mistaken leap doesn’t encumber us at all. Someday the writer may be interviewed about her writing and be asked if any of it is autobiographical. Then she can set the record straight forever, or she can say, mysteriously, that she leaves the matter to readers to decide!

Raina, my strongest response is that you should write what you want and tell it as well as you can. Period.

End of post.

That was a joke.

Several years ago I taught an undergraduate course in creative writing at a university. One of my students thought in stereotypes, which revealed themselves in his writing and even when he talked. He was blithely unaware of the offensiveness of some of what he said and wrote, even though other students were offended and said so. It got a little sad when he didn’t understand why he wasn’t well liked. I don’t think he meant ill; he was just so un-self-reflective that he couldn’t assimilate the feedback.

Most of us–the vast majority in general and here on the blog–are unlike him. We know that other people have feelings and perspectives that are different from ours. We don’t want to hurt anyone. I don’t think we should worry much when we write or speak. If we get it wrong, we’ll be corrected and we’ll learn. That’s good.

The stakes do get higher when we’re writing for publication, but we can show our work to beta readers and ask them to focus on the areas that worry us. If a literary agent is interested in our work, she’ll point out any problem areas. Our editor will too. Mine alerted me to sensitivity around the word invalid for a person with a long-lasting illness, because the spelling is the same as for the invalid that means not valid and is pronounced differently. I was surprised, but I found another word. And I learned something.

Another thing about publishing: Timid writing doesn’t stand up well, in my opinion. If publication is our goal, we should take a stand and write boldly.

Here’s a confession: I read reader reviews on Goodreads. Not everyone likes my books. For example, some readers (many!) are grossed out by Ogre Enchanted (which I’m reading on Facebook at the moment, if you’re interested. Reading my books there is my effort to provide comfort during the pandemic. You can find my page by typing in my name.) Okay. My sense of humor is pretty broad, excepting only meanness and stereotypes, but some people don’t go for it. They have that right. My editor was untroubled, so I felt I had license to be a little outrageous. Readers have a right to dislike any or all of my books, and I have a right not to be too concerned as long as I wrote the best book I could.

If we don’t experiment, we rob ourselves of some of the greatest values of writing: the opportunity to explore, to find out about ourselves, to discover what we can do, to see what surprising ideas we can come up with. We need freedom for that. We don’t get freedom by self-censoring.

Of course we can research an issue we’re not sure how to address. Say we want our character to go mad, for example, we can research mental illness, which is a very big field, but we can narrow it down. We can read memoirs by people who suffered from the kind of mental illness that interests us. Memoirs will give us an inside look.

Naturally, people who suffer from depression, for instance, don’t experiences it identically. It may be worthwhile to read the voices of at least two people who’ve been depressed and then use our imaginations to invent our own character with this illness. This does not mean that our depressed character has to be good. She can be our villain. The depression can be part of her evil or aside from it.

My historical novel, A Ceiling Made of Eggshells, as you may remember, is told from the POV of a Jewish girl in late medieval Spain. I’m Jewish but I don’t represent all Jews, and I certainly don’t represent medieval Jews. I’m not religious, and I didn’t have much of a religious education. The experience of a more orthodox Jew would be very different from mine. Mostly, I relied on my research.

In children’s literature, there’s a move toward “own voices,” the telling of stories about marginalized communities by members of the communities. Following “own voices,” a writer wouldn’t write from the POV of, say, a Vietnamese-American unless she herself was a member of that group. Here are two interesting and thoughtful links that discuss this: and

If we’re not writing for publication, though, we can write in any voice. We can read about the war in Vietnam and imagine ourselves a Vietnamese child during the war. Without doing a very lot of research–not only about the war but also about customs, religion, daily life, etc. in Vietnam–we’ll certainly get it wrong. Even with the research, we’re likely to get some of it wrong, but the effort will be a wonderful exercise of sympathy in our development as a writer, and we can move some of what we learned into other stories, maybe as the basis for fantasy.

I hope the message of this post is a shout for freedom. Please write what you’re drawn to, which, more than anything else, will make your writing authentic. We can’t control what other people think, so let them think it.

Here are three prompts:

• Write a version of “Hansel and Gretel” in several voices: the witch, the mother or father who wants to lose the children, Gretel who thinks Hansel is a pest, and Hansel who craves independence. You can try this more than one way, changing which characters are sympathetic (or maybe none are).

• At a national debate your MC draws a very unpopular position to argue, a position she disagrees with: say, euthanasia for dogs who growl more than once at strangers, or, more seriously, the death penalty for children who commit certain crimes. Or a topic you choose. She argues so well she wins the debate and finds herself despised by the people she cares about and hated on social media. Write the story.

• Read Hamlet or a synopsis. Write a modern-day version, in prose or verse. Hamlet not only seeks truth but also right action once he discovers that his mother and his uncle really did murder his father.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Worldbuild Minus Infodump Equals Fantasterrific!

On March 15, 2020, Myra S. wrote, How do you find ways to worldbuild without infodumping?

Several of you had ideas.

Erica: What I’ve done in my poor, neglected WIP is to get the plot started quickly, and then slow down a little. For example, once I got my MC suitably injured, I then described the evening he spent in the hospital. What actually happened wasn’t important to the plot, bur it gave me the opportunity to explain better what was going on.

future_famous_author: Also, if a character has to explain your world to another character, a character who has just been introduced to the country/realm/dimension/planet then you have a super easy excuse to easily plant new information into the story about the world that it is set in.

Melissa Mead: Here’s a handy resource:

Christie V Powell: I’ve enjoyed watching Brandon Sanderson’s lectures on the subject. He has two recent ones on worldbuilding, and covers this topic. Here’s the first one:

Raina: I think two aspects of worldbuilding are what to share and when to share it. For the first, I like to think about a concept called Chekhov’s gun: basically, the idea is that if you introduce an element in the story, it should be used later on. The original concept applies to plot devices and props, but I think it’s a good way to think about worldbuilding. Beyond basic details about the world, if you introduce some information about the world, it should be relevant to and have some impact (even if not directly) on the story later on. In other words, the information should be used–whether to justify a character’s actions/personality, to have an effect on the plot, or just to explain why something happens the way it does–eventually.

For the second, it helps to introduce information slowly, as it gradually becomes relevant/noticeable to the characters. I play Dungeons and Dragons (basically a group-based storytelling game with dice), and our dungeon master (the person in charge of the game and the overarching story) does a LOT of worldbuilding, but doesn’t tell us about it until it becomes relevant for our characters or we interact with the world. When we enter a city, he gives us some basic information (the size, the climate, the general atmosphere, stuff you would notice by looking at a postcard) but doesn’t tell us all the details in one go, like the precise demographic makeup, every historical event, the internal power structure, where all the best taverns are, etc. To find that information, we have to walk around the city and talk to people and investigate, and we get bits of info here and there. And if we choose not to go down a particular path, he doesn’t tell us about it, even if he already created an intricate plot but we completely ignored the inciting incident. (Which has happened a couple times!) The beginning of the Hunger Games is a great example; we’re gradually introduced to more details about the world as Katniss draws connections between what her world is like and what she’s currently doing/thinking about.

Another tip is to think about how people process “worldbuilding” information in the real world, and how we think about the world around us. For example, our government system: most of us know that America is a democracy, and we choose our president by voting every four years (the political system), we know who the current president is (current state of things), and we know this all came about after the thirteen colonies declared independence from Britain (history). If we’re interested in politics or history, we may also know how the electoral college and the two-party system works, which party is in power in each of the three branches, or that the Constitution that set up the American governmental system was ratified on June 21, 1788. I would guess that considerably fewer people would be able to explain in detail how our first-past-the-post electoral system led to the development of exactly two major political parties, name each congress member and their platform, or list the names of everyone who signed the Constitution. If you want more examples, check out some academic nonfiction books about history; they go SUPER in-depth about specific topics and analyzes their impact on everything we know. All of these things shape the world we live in, but different people know it in different levels of detail. And even if you DO know these things, you’re not always thinking about them. Most often, the things at the top of people’s minds are the things that are most noticeable or directly affect them. So while you build a complex world, keep in mind that your characters might not know every single detail or realize how that affects them as a person.

These are great!

As you know, my next book, Sparrows in the Wind, is about the Trojan War, which figures in Greek mythology, although some parts of the myth may have really happened, as archaeological discoveries suggest.

When I was around nine or ten, I read Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes, which, though it was first published in 1942, is still selling briskly. I loved it and and reread it many times. When I started writing Sparrows in the Wind, I assumed that almost everybody knew the story of the Trojan War, just as most people know the fairy tale “Cinderella.” I didn’t think I’d have to do much world building.

Wrong, alas.

I asked my friend, the terrific kids’ book writer Karen Romano Young, to read the first eighty pages. She was bewildered.

When I explained the mythology, her eyes rolled back in her head and her mouth fell open. Until then, I hadn’t realized how complicated it all is, beginning with a banquet on Mount Olympus with the gods, a golden apple, and the goddess of discord.

I went back to page one and explained everything and finally finished the novel. I sent it to my editor, who wrote to me in her editorial letter that I had created an infodump (the first time I’d ever been told this in all the worlds I’ve made up), and the mythology still wasn’t clear, and she had to supplement her reading of my story with her own research.

Not what I’d hoped for.

So I started again, again.

This goes to Raina’s “when to share it,” which I had never had to think about before: My MC in the first half of my book is Cassandra of Troy, a minor figure in the myth, who is given the gift of seeing the future by the god Apollo. Then, after she won’t do what he wants, he curses his gift by making no one believe her.

When she receives the gift, in my unrevised telling, she knows immediately all the terrible things that will happen to Troy and the people she loves, and I pass the details on to the reader–the infodump.

Not telling everything at once seemed to me like tricking the reader, which, when another author does it, prompts two reactions in me: I think it’s fun but obvious–the story machinery is showing. But I did some of it anyway, in that I allow Cassandra to know more than her thoughts and dialogue tell the reader.

What I wound up doing mostly, though, was to have Cassandra herself see only one terrible event the first time the future is poured into her. The second time she looks, she stops the internal movie when the tragedy becomes too great for her to tolerate. The infodump goes away. Knowledge is revealed in digestible bites.

So that’s one strategy: find ways to break up the revelations into small morsels.

My favorite way is to introduce the world as our MC or another character comes upon it. Cassandra doesn’t know the future when my book opens, so it’s as new to her as it is to the reader. That’s handy, but it can’t always be that way.

My book begins twenty pages before Cassandra receives the future. She’s already in her world, which she knows and the reader doesn’t. How do we show it?

A little at a time, but quickly. The book starts with Cassandra awakening at dawn. She stretches lazily in bed (so there are beds) and leaps up, remembering that this is the day she will be kanephoros for the city of Troy.

What’s a kanephoros? She tells the reader in her worried thoughts. Being kanephoros is an honor, but it’s risky. She has to lead a procession in a festival for Apollo while carrying on her head (hands free!) a heavy basket of offerings for the god. If the basket falls off, the whole city will suffer. The reader frowns. Everybody makes mistakes! These gods aren’t very understanding.

For those who don’t know anything about Apollo, Cassandra tells the reader about him in her thoughts–that he’s her favorite god and why.

So thoughts and a POV character’s narration is a natural way to show our world.

Let’s consider the fairy tale “Puss in Boots.” Here’s the beginning from Andrew Lang’s Blue Fairy Book:

There was a miller who left no more estate to the three sons he had than his mill, his ass, and his cat. The partition was soon made. Neither scrivener nor attorney was sent for. They would soon have eaten up all the poor patrimony. The eldest had the mill, the second the ass, and the youngest nothing but the cat. The poor young fellow was quite comfortless at having so poor a lot.

“My brothers,” said he, “may get their living handsomely enough by joining their stocks together; but for my part, when I have eaten up my cat, and made me a muff of his skin, I must die of hunger.”

The Cat, who heard all this, but made as if he did not, said to him with a grave and serious air:

“Do not thus afflict yourself, my good master.

And so on. Here’s a link to the rest of the story, which is in the public domain:,

The world building doesn’t begin in this excerpt until the third paragraph. When the cat is first introduced, there’s no hint that he’s anything extraordinary. I think we accept the abrupt shift because we know this is a fairy tale, and the story is mostly told rather than shown.

But if we were writing a novelized version, we’d have to prepare the reader. The first time the cat is mentioned, we’d want to drop something in that suggests he’s more than the usual feline.

If the youngest son is our MC, he can think of his dead father and the cat and of hints his father dropped. Our MC can talk to the cat as people talk to animals without expecting an answer in words. The cat can answer.

But let’s say our MC is Puss himself since he carries most of the action. Then the reader will know instantly that this is a world of super-smart cats. We’ll probably have to reveal quickly whether the second son’s donkey is super-smart too. We can bring this out in Puss’s thoughts or in something he does.

We never have to explain why cats are so smart unless that reason is essential to our plot. We establish it. This is the way things are. Brilliant cats.

That’s another strategy. We don’t need the history of the ways our story world differs from the reader’s–unless the history figures in our plot. We don’t build any more world than we need.

The reader will accept the world we’ve laid out, even if it’s wildly improbable (think Terry Pratchett’s Discworld carried on giant elephants and a giant turtle), especially if we bring it on early. Pratchett describes his world as soon as the reader opens a book. So that’s another strategy: Pile on the surprises while readers are still settling into their chairs.

In “Puss in Boots,” the reader learns that the story is unfolding in a monarchy. This comes up suddenly when the cat brings a rabbit to the king, so we probably want to alert the reader beforehand that there is a king and also that he has a daughter. How much introduction the two of them need depends on our plot. We don’t have to go into the details of the monarchy unless the plot calls for it. For example, the reader doesn’t have to know if there’s an assembly and how the members are appointed and how much power they have or how wealthy or impoverished the king’s subjects are. Unnecessary details may lead to the info dump. And we should keep in mind that readers of fantasy have a lot to keep track of. We don’t want them to sink under the weight of it all.

If you love worldbuilding, you can figure it all out and write down every bit. If your plot isn’t set, you can examine what you’ve come up with to find spots you can exploit to make trouble for your MC. Once you start the story itself, you’ll drop the details in gradually, but only the ones your story needs.

Here are three prompts:

• In “Puss in Boots,” when the king and his daughter go on an outing in their carriage, Puss contrives to have his master taken inside with them. Then Puss runs ahead of the carriage and tells the peasants this from Lang: “Good people, you who are reaping, if you do not tell the King that all this corn belongs to the Marquis of Carabas, you shall be chopped as small as herbs for the pot.” The good people believe him! Write a scene that makes his threat believable, or write an entire story that leads up to the threat.

• Not much later, Puss comes to a castle owned by an ogre, and this is the first the reader learns that ogres exist in this world. Write an earlier scene that introduces the ogre.

• Andrew Lang (1844-1912) is best known for his collections of folk and fairy tales. Imagine that he brings his “Puss in Boots” as I’ve quoted it here to a workshop for a critique. Write the scene, imagining who might be in the workshop and inventing your own Andrew Lang as a character, rather than the historical figure. (For this, I recommend reading the whole story–which is short.)

Have fun, and save what you write!

Writers Bravely Go

On March 12, 2020, Kit Kat Kitty wrote, Does anyone have any advice on how to write about things you don’t know? I know as writers we’re always told to write what we know, but sometimes I wonder. If I were to try to write a story about two people falling in love, could I do it? I’ve never fallen in love, so does that mean I can’t write about that? (I’ve liked people a lot before, and I’ve always been loved by my friends and family and seen couples in love, so would that count?) If I haven’t experienced something (or at least something very close to it) can I still write about it? Should I? Or is it about relating things we have experienced to things we haven’t experienced?

I don’t worry so much about faeries or dragons or vampires, because those things aren’t real. But I do worry about emotions or experiences. Can I write about a character who’s going through trauma I’ve never had to deal with without getting it wrong or offending someone?

I’m just worried because that seems to be a mental block for me whenever I have an idea. I always tell myself if I haven’t experienced it (or something very close) I can’t write about it.

A few of you weighed in.

Melissa Mead: I’d say go ahead and try! Even if you get it wrong at first, you’ll get better with practice + experience.

future_famous_author: Speaking of love, I wrote a whole book about love and I’ve never been in love! The love was hardly a subplot, either, it was a huge part of the plot! And if all we did was write about things that we had experienced, don’t you think that our stories and books and poems and movies would all start to get boring? All you have to do is try and picture yourself in that character’s shoes, whether those shoes walk through hard times or good times, and whether or not those shoes would actually fit you. It can be hard sometimes for us writers to make things up- not just a character, but emotions and feelings. It definitely takes practice to conjure up emotions that you’ve never felt and somehow project them onto a page, but it almost has to happen. Female authors oftentimes write about male characters, and thoughts and feelings that they have that the female author has probably never had herself, and vice versa. And in a classic, Little Women, which has been made into tons and tons of movies, the main character falls in love and gets married, whereas the author, whom the character was based off of, never got married herself. And I’m sure that Gail has written emotions that she never actually experienced herself!

Christie V Powell: Humans are amazing. Our emotions don’t know the difference between real and imaginary–that’s why stories exist. Have you read books or seen movies where you felt the connection between two characters? Then, to your brain, you have experienced it.

If it’s a specific trauma that worries you, asking someone you trust who has gone through it is always a good move. If meeting in person doesn’t work, try social media, or even reading a memoir or article they’ve written.

My goodness! It’s almost a whole year since you, Kit Kat Kitty, asked your question, and you may have fallen in love three or more times since then!

future famous author, you’re right. I have never looked at someone’s earlobe and wanted to eat it! More seriously, I haven’t been in the terrible circumstances I thrust my characters into. I don’t know how I’d react.

And I’m with Christie V Powell that humans are amazing in our willingness to merge with imaginary beings of all sorts. And writers are an amazing-plus subset of humanity, gifted with the power to create the characters that readers can inhabit.

On a whim, I just googled “How does it feel to fall in love?” and many articles and entries popped up, which you and other writers may find helpful. (I haven’t clicked on them.)

I’m revising my Trojan War book for my editor, which means that the heaviest lifting is done and I’m thinking about my next project, which will probably be a take on another fairy tale. In the way I’m approaching this fairy tale, one of the main characters is super selfish, bordering, in my opinion, on narcissism. I don’t think I’m much of a narcissist myself, and, luckily, I haven’t known anyone else I’d peg that way. But that isn’t a reason not to write this character!

So I did a lot of googling on narcissism, especially on how to stop being narcissistic, which seems to be very difficult. Fascinating! I don’t know how much I’ll use, but what I read gave me a better idea about how to approach the character and how to move him through my plot.

I research constantly, even for fantasy. I’ve fallen in love, but I may go back and read my Google entries on the topic. Research helps me feel grounded and stokes my imagination because the real world is full of surprises. The way I fall in love is probably different from the way other people do, and my characters all have their own ways.

As Christie V Powell suggests, we can ask real people about what falling in love was like for them. We can ask people who seem to be happy together and (tactfully) people who seem anything but. How did it start? Slow or fast? What did they think and feel? What was the physical reaction? Chills? Heat? Trembling? Tingling? I bet everyone will have a different story.

Let’s linger on that. Won’t a shy person and an exuberant person fall in love differently? Writers on the blog often talk about backstory. Won’t people’s backstories affect how they fall in love? We can’t have all the experiences our characters have. We have to make it up. No other option.

And, just saying, if my characters could come to life, I’m certain they’d tell me I got things wrong. The nice ones would thank me for trying. I don’t know what the villains would do!

I agree with Kit Kat Kitty that we expand from what we do know to what we don’t. We know about forming friendships, about liking and even loving friends, about being loved. I’ve never been hungry for an earlobe, but when I’m ravenous, the sight of a raw chicken about to go into the oven can be almost unbearable.

As for offending people, I’d say no one has the right to be offended. You’re not writing about them. They’re not experts in how your characters fall in love! You and your characters are the only experts.

Here are four prompts:

• A thousand-year-old elf falls in love with a nine-hundred-year-old dragon. Write their meeting and how the love develops.

• The roots of two trees come together deliberately in an embrace. Write how that happens.

• A shy person and an exuberant person do fall in love. Write their first meeting. Continue with the progression of their romance.

• After Snow White wakes up, she goes with the prince to his castle where they get married though they don’t know each other at all. Using the original Grimm story, write your version and make the romance real. Remember that she has quite a backstory.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Unboring the boring

On February 16, 2020, Katie W. wrote, My problem with getting the characters involved in a conversation is that when I’m stuck, it’s usually because I’m procrastinating, so the characters start talking and never stop. I’m facing that right now in my WIP, as well as the general “I need to put something in the middle of this story but I don’t know what.” Essentially, I have a busy day, four fairly boring days (although there will probably be an exciting scene or two), and then it gets interesting again. Any advice?

Sara wrote back, I would try to be as brief as you can with the boring parts. You have to describe something in order to let the reader know that time is passing, but try not to go through the motions with what you describe. Something I do sometimes is be brief but still go through a day chronologically, by giving short descriptions of everything that happens. Then I realize that a bunch of the stuff wasn’t necessary, and I only kept the interesting things. So if the little descriptions don’t give us something that’s at least kinda useful, don’t feel bad cutting it. I think that the reader can fill in the blanks. For letting dialogue go on and on, you might want to just write it when you feel like you need to or want to and then go back and look for any useful or interesting or funny little parts. A lot of the time, in a bunch of dialogue, there will still be really good parts even if it’s overall unnecessary. If the whole thing doesn’t fit, then try to put the good parts somewhere else in your story.

I am with Sara that we can let our stories run on in a first draft, and we can snip away a little at a time in later drafts. If we’re entertaining ourselves, there’s nothing wrong with that. Writing is hard. We should take our fun where we find it. And I’m with her that there will generally be really good bits that we can keep or drop into other places.

We don’t want any boring parts to remain in our story when we finish polishing it, so as we revise, or even as we write in the first place, we can insert hints to the “next interesting thing” coming up in our plot. To do this, we think ahead:

Does our MC or anyone taking part in the dialogue know about the plot point on the way? If yes, we can put hints into the conversation or the body language or the thoughts and feelings of our MC.

For example, suppose our MC, named Kiara, and her friends will all be competing to get into an elite academy, and the competition is the next important event in our story. Meanwhile, they’re at the birthday party of Kiara’s best friend Lyle, eating swamp beast stew and talking about, say, favorite board games. We need this scene to show the bond between the characters, but nothing major happens in it.

How can we introduce tension? We make a list!

The result of the list is that during the party, Kiara thinks how, after Friday, she probably won’t see some of the other kids again and, if she fails, won’t see any of them. She notices Lyle talking with his mouth full and remembers how that always annoyed her but now it seems precious. She swallows over the lump in her throat.

The reader can’t be inside the heart and mind of any other characters, but their actions and dialogue can foreshadow the coming test. These go on our list too. Lyle drops his fork, and Kiara notices that his hand is trembling. Janelle says she hates board games because they’re too competitive. Marla announces spontaneously, “I love you guys! Every… single… one… of… you.” Jerrold blows his nose with a wet honk.

These hints can punctuate a debate over the best board game and a rambling anecdote from someone about a family Monopoly marathon. The reader will pick up on the clues.

If the characters don’t know about the excitement ahead, we can still put in signs. Suppose a goblin army is about to invade the kingdom and Kiara and her friends live in a town near the border. The partygoers have no idea this is on the way. How to foreshadow the danger without out-and-out saying, Little did they know…

Naturally, we make a list. How can we suggest trouble while the peaceful party is going on?

• Kiara casually mentions that Lyle is now old enough to be called up if the kingdom is threatened. Most of the kids are old enough too. This becomes a joke. If they all flunk the entrance exam, they can still fight together. Kiara thinks that it’s lucky the kingdom has been at peace for a century, because she barely passed her martial arts class.

• Lyle picks up the Royal Gazette on a side table and reads out loud an article about a construction project that happened to unearth sacred goblin bones.

• In a discussion of end-of-year research papers, Kiara says she wrote about goblin psychology, concentrating on goblin rage.

• Lyle says that goblins never die alone. “They always take someone with them.” Everyone shudders.

We list other possibilities.

When we write the scene, we include the mundane. Lyle opens his presents. Kiara says she ate too much. Lyle’s parents put in an appearance.

But if the party scene turns out not to be necessary for our plot, we cut it–and save it in case we change our mind, in case we need it for another story, in case a doctoral student writing about us will find it fascinating.

There is nothing wrong with making time pass in a sentence or even three words: A week later… Or we can mark off time landmarks in a few sentences. Lyle’s birthday party came and went. Rain fell three times. Out of boredom, I repaired the hem of my least favorite gown. If we like, we can drop a hint of tension into our summary: Mother was called away two nights running.

Here are three prompts:

• The goblin army is camped ten miles outside the border. A dozen soldiers eat around a campfire. Write their conversation. Make it both boring and horrifying.

• I based my Princess Tale Cinderellis and the Glass Hill on a little known fairy tale called “The Princess on the Glass Hill.” In the beginning of the fairy tale, a farm’s hay harvest is mysteriously ruined three years running. In the third year, the hero discovers that a magical horse is eating the hay. The next year, a second magical horse shows up, and the next, a third magical horse. Nothing happens in the story aside from one day a year. Here’s a link to the fairy tale: Or Write the first two or three years. The challenge is to make them interesting. If you haven’t already, don’t read my version.

• Write Prince Charming’s first hour at the first ball before Cinderella shows up.

Have fun and save what you write!

Question Grab Bag

On February 13, 2020, Samantha Pixley wrote, What do you do when you feel like your story is all over the map? My current WIP is a lot of great ideas that aren’t coming together well – 100 pages in, I’m daunted by the idea that my story isn’t capturing the right feeling that I’m after and I might have to scrap it and start over. I feel almost like I’m losing the essence of my story. Any thoughts on what I should do?

How do you deal with wordiness? I’m 100 pages into my WIP and not even halfway through the plot. Besides this, I keep getting lost in the words instead of letting the story GUIDE the words. I’m floundering in a swamp of words! I’m talking too much and saying nothing!

You said “Curiosity helps me. If I don’t keep writing, I won’t know what I’ll come up with next. If I give up on a story, I won’t find out what it will become. Same for if I stop revising–I won’t discover how it will be after the umpty-ump draft.” Do you ever have the problem where you daydream about your stories instead of writing them and does it help or hinder your story? On that note; as a published, well established author, do you ever find yourself missing the characters or the world of an already completed story and getting the craving to go back and write more? Is that what happened with The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre (one of my favorite books of yours)!

Do you ever go back to a story you wrote a while ago or already published and go “Igth, that isn’t nearly as good as I remembered!”? I do that all the time! I think part of this is because I’m guilty of never really editing that much and so my stories just aren’t that pristine. Another reason might be because I am very much a new writer – I’ve only really been writing for about four years, so I don’t consider myself all that ‘seasoned’ in the process. Is this something that only I do, or do other people go back to their already finished works and say “Igth!”?

Several of you offered help.

Katie W.: I’ve been writing for about the same amount of time as you have, but I can take a shot at your third and fifth questions. First off, I totally daydream about my stories. Sometimes I even sleep-dream about them. (Although, given how nonsensical my dreams are, this doesn’t help as much as you might think.) And what I’ve found is that sometimes it’s helpful and sometimes it’s just annoying. For example, I am totally obsessed with my current MC, and spend a probably ridiculous amount of time figuring out her backstory and random scenes from her life. Sometimes it’s useful, like the sudden realization that her teacher’s motivations made a lot more sense if they were related, and sometimes it’s not, like the fifty bogillion ideas for a scene I might never write. So, I would say there’s nothing wrong with daydreaming, so long as you start writing eventually.

As to the fifth question, I know EXACTLY what you’re talking about. I edit something to within an inch of its life, feel really happy, and come back to it a year later and absolutely loathe it. Two stories have been so utterly unusable that I ended up rewriting them without even a glance at the original. Others I’ve just given up on because I don’t want to go to the time and effort to fix them. The only good thing I can see about this is that at least I recognize that they’re terrible, and the fact that I recognize that is a sign that I have grown as a writer. Or, at any rate, that’s the way I choose to think about it, even if it’s not entirely true.

Melissa Mead: I’ll take a shot at “How do you deal with wordiness?”, and maybe a little “What do you do when you feel like your story is all over the map?” too.

The first place I sold stories to was a magazine with a maximum word limit of 600 words. I’d write stories of about 1,000 words, and then cut, and tighten, and distill, until the story fit. It usually got more intense and focused in the process.

So for your first draft: Go ahead! Write anything that strikes your fancy. Let it ramble all over the place. If a new character or side quest pops up, roll out the welcome wagon.

Once you’ve got a finished draft, put it away for a while, maybe a week, while you do something else. Then go back to it with an editorial X-acto knife in hand.

Re-read the story. If something’s boring, or distracting, or just not right for that story, cut it out. (I keep a “cut file” for books and long stories. That way you can tell yourself that you can always put it back if you really want to.)
Then cut, and polish, and cut, and polish, until your gem shines the way you want it to.

Song4myKing: About daydreaming, I do it all the time. I don’t have a lot of time to actually sit down and write, but I can still think about my stories and write the fun scenes in my head. I often figure out details this way, and get a sense of where I’m going in the story, and get excited about upcoming scenes. Often, there are scenes that I’ve written out in my head many times over. It probably doesn’t work this way for everyone, but I love writing those scenes. It’s almost like finally performing a well-rehearsed play or piece of music. I also daydream a lot about things that I know won’t make it into the story. I don’t see this as a waste; it’s fun and it’s helpful for world building and character background.

Raina: Story all over the map–I’ve struggled with this too, and it’s one of the main reasons why I lose momentum on a project. What’s helped me is to spend some time thinking about and writing down the “heart” of my story. I like to think of this concept as how I would answer “what is your story about?” It can be a theme, a character, a feeling you want to capture, anything. For example: “My story is about an Unchosen girl who chooses herself. My story is about finding adventure even when it’s not handed to you. My story is about the side characters who get left behind, who aren’t special enough to be the Hero but say screw that and make their own story anyways.” Whatever the heart of your story is, write it down and keep it close. Whenever you feel like you’re losing direction, look back to it. Remembering what you first loved about your story, why you’re passionate about it, and what you want it to be is a fantastic motivator to make it a reality on the page.

Daydreaming–I do this a lot too, but I think it’s a GOOD thing as long as it doesn’t take the place of actual writing. Daydreaming is an awesome place to develop new ideas, test new directions, and flesh out your story more. If you want to feel more productive, it can help to write all of that stuff down. An idea for a character, a snippet of dialogue, anything. That’s what I do. Every single story-related idea I have that’s worth remembering/expanding upon, I write down so I’ll have a reference later. (I use an app called Trello, but you can use a notebook, post it notes, anything.) And for me, at least, that stuff really comes in handy later when I’m going to actually write the story.

Looking back at old stories–I sometimes look back at old stories, and a lot of the time the quality is worse than I remember/what I have now. Sometimes I’m surprised, sometimes I’m not. But I see that as a GOOD thing. The fact that I can now see problems means that I’ve learned as a writer. The quality gap between my old work and my new work is how much I’ve improved as a writer since then, and to me, at least, it feels pretty nice to see the difference. I try not to judge my old work; I’ll either leave it be as a memory of my state at the time, or use everything I’ve learned since then to polish it up into something I’m proud of now. Occasionally I’ll even see something that’s actually pretty decent–a line, a turn of phrase–that I’ll feel proud of myself for thinking of at the time.

I love Raina’s idea about finding the heart of our story. Out of sad experience of getting lost more than once, these days I write a lot of notes before I start my manuscript itself–character notes, plot notes, fictional world notes. As I’ve said here, I have to know my ending in order to write a book. Not everyone does, but for me, knowing my destination keeps me focused.

We don’t have to do this work at the beginning. A hundred pages in is a great place to stop and look around. It’s certainly not too late. We can ask ourselves Raina’s question about the heart of our story. If we’re really all over the map, we may have a bunch of possible hearts. What an abundance!

We can see what we’ve put in that supports this heart or that one. Which thread seems to dominate? Which one interests us the most? What endings are suggested by the threads? Do some of them interlock so they can be pulled together?

It’s hard to remember this, but there is no rush. My favorite and best writing teacher used to say that a story takes as long to write as it takes.

And, published or not, the only person we have to satisfy is ourself.

Joy, if we love more than one idea, even if they don’t all fit the story as it’s shaping up. The others are fodder for more stories. Save them!

Once we’ve found the thread that interests us the most and seems to have the most possibilities, we can ask Raina’s heart question. We can ask my ending question. As we write, we keep the answers in mind. We can write them on a Post-it and stick them on our laptop. Or more than one Post-it and stick them on the fridge, our mirror, our pillow. If we start meandering, we can ask if we’re going off track or if there’s a connection to our main story road.

As for wordiness, I’m entirely with Melissa Mead. I agree about first-draft freedom and the revision X-acto knife. About the first: We’re word people. If we run on, it’s out of exuberance and love of language. Writing is hard! We don’t want to take the fun out of it!

About the second: I wrote a blog post called “Down With Length, Up With Thrills,” which I posted on August 26th of last year. It may be worth rereading.

I don’t daydream enough about my stories. I love when my mind spontaneously visits what I’m working on when I’m not actually working. The daydreaming is more relaxed than writing the book itself or even than writing notes. It comes from the back of my brain, puttering along, puffing out charming figments that are often useful. The only bad thing is if I forget before I write down the conjuring.

The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre came from long-simmering ideas about “Rapunzel.” I finally saw a way to use the fairy tale and end it in a more satisfying way than I think the original does–by combining it with a fantasy version of Exodus from the Bible. Then I wondered if it could find a home in one of the worlds I’d already created, and Bamarre came to mind.

I don’t have the Igth! experience you describe. Ordinarily, I don’t reread my books, and I don’t suggest rereading old work unless we plan to celebrate our growth, as Katie W. and Raina say they have. Otherwise, we’re just making ourselves unhappy.

Lately, though, I have been reading my books on Facebook. I’m doing it as my bit in offering some respite to people suffering stress from the pandemic and the economic downturn. I hope that the routine can help. I give the same intro and wear my little fairy pendant, and it’s always my same old face and, lately, my disordered hair, plus a chapter or two of an adventure story that may be nostalgic for some and new to others. When I started, I had no idea how many books I’d get through.

So I am rereading. I’m glad to say I like my books. I’ve even been surprised at how moving parts of some of them are. I don’t know if anyone has noticed that a few times I’ve been close to tears or laughter.

On the downside, I’ve noticed some sentences that I’d recast if I were writing them now. I pick up word repetitions that I don’t like. Since I’ve studied poetry, I even spot sound repetition, like unintentional rhymes, that I’m not happy about. Ah, well.

Here are three prompts, all inspired by the movie, The Wizard of Oz:

• The farm Dorothy returns to isn’t the same as the one she left. Maybe a stranger has come to live with Aunt Em and Uncle Henry. Maybe the house now has an attic when it didn’t before. List the possibilities of what may have changed. Think about what could result. Write the first scene of a sequel. If you like, write the whole thing. Consider what could be the heart of the new story and how it might end.

• The wizard leaves Emerald City to be administered by the Scarecrow, assisted by the Tin Man and the Lion. What could go wrong? Write the story.

• On the way back to Kansas, the wizard’s balloon malfunctions and he and Dorothy make an emergency landing. Where? What happens? Write the story.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Idea Worry

Happy New Year!

I happened across this interesting website that you might enjoy noodling around in. The page I’m linking to reveals the difficulty level of any word: Some of the results are curious. For example, dogged is considered elementary/middle school level, but doggedness is graduate level. Another page may come in handy for naming characters (and children). It’s the Baby Name Uniqueness Analyzer. There’s also a Nickname Finder.

On February 9, 2020, Kit Kat Kitty wrote, I’m having trouble with ideas. Not just coming up with them, but liking them. It seems that lately, whenever I get an idea, I excitedly write down the possibilities, but then I just drop it. I focus so much on how wrong everything could go. The setting isn’t original enough, the magic system wouldn’t make any sense, or I’m just ripping off the last book I read.

I feel like every time I really start thinking about something and what I could do, I don’t want to write it anymore. I’m just so convinced that it’s not worth it, or it won’t work, or it’d be too hard to write and I’d just get lost.

Any advice? And does this happen to anyone else?

I wrote, I think it happens to almost everyone. I’ve added your question to my list.

Erica wrote, My only advice is to try to write the story before you analyze the story. Aso, maybe it would help to deliberately try to write a really bad story so you can get the criticism out of your system?

And Melissa Mead wrote, Oh yes. All the time/ Sometimes it helps to write something that I don’t intend to show anyone. I tell myself “Okay, time to get this junk out of my system so it doesn’t get in the way of anything else.”

Sometimes it is junk. Sometimes it comes out better than I would’ve thought.

My rule is not to be judgmental about anything I’m writing. Ever. Not even after my story or novel or poem is all written and revised. I’m not allowed to think it’s unoriginal or boring or farfetched or any other withering criticism. Of course I let myself notice if, say, the pace is slow or a character isn’t likable when I want her to be. Those criticisms are narrow and useful. Then I jump in and work on whatever the problem is.

This taboo includes liking or disliking my ideas or my story, which is just another form of judgment.

The reason for the ban I put on myself, as Kit Kat Kitty is discovering, is that harsh judgment makes writing much harder, maybe impossible. Why would people subject themselves to such misery? Instead, we can master archery or cook a stew or weed around the tomato plants–which are impossible to do in a clichéd way, and the reward comes more quickly.

But I want to keep writing.

The ban takes practice. We have to become self aware and notice what we’re doing to ourselves. Gradually, we recognize that we’re self-inflicting before the effects set in. We can put a quarter in a very large jar whenever we catch ourselves. We can keep a log: May 3rd, 11:05 am, called myself stupid; May 3rd, 3:47 pm, called my characters flat. Etc. We can congratulate ourselves when we go three days without having to write in the log.

Because the minute we notice, we have to cut it out.

I’m copying a sentence of Kit Kat Kitty’s worrying here: The setting isn’t original enough, the magic system wouldn’t make any sense, or I’m just ripping off the last book I read.

We can put a quarter in the jar for the word unoriginal and then we can get down to considering our setting without judgment. What could be in the backyard in addition to the swing set? We make a list, naturally: a giant face made of wood that can be stepped into through the mouth or slithered into along the ear canals; a small, two-horse carousel; a half-repaired sailboat. You can continue the list. How can we develop our setting in a way that will support our plot? For example, in revising my Trojan War fantasy I’m thinking about how to make the city precious so that the reader will care about its survival, not just the survival of my characters.

We can take the same approach with the magic system. We pay the jar for wouldn’t make any sense and put the worry in terms we can work with, like consistency or effectiveness. What about the magic system is inconsistent or ineffective? How can it enhance our plot?

Same approach even for the rip-off criticism, maybe even more so. We want to be inspired by the creations of other writers, including books, movies, series, and, though I don’t know much (anything) about them, video games. We want them to plant seeds in our brains. Poets do this quite openly. We write responses to other poems or have a conversation with another poem. We incorporate a line from someone else’s poem in ours (and give credit).

For fiction, we can ask ourselves what in the other writer’s story set off the imitation impulse? It may be something we want to explore ourselves. Or it may be something we disagree with and we want to make our case. Or there may be a flaw that we want to remedy. I wouldn’t worry about imitation. Whatever we come up with will inevitably be our own.

(I thought Ella Enchanted was entirely derivative when I wrote it, because I poured into it elements of everything I loved as a reader. I was sure I was going to be caught, but so far I’ve gotten away with the theft.)

I think something else may underlie the self-attack when we indulge in it, and that, in my opinion, is how daunting writing is. Many arts are interpretive. Actors (who aren’t doing improv) interpret the lines provided by a writer. Musicians (who aren’t jamming) interpret a composition created by someone else. That’s easier! (Or so I think, who is neither a musician nor an actor.) Writers have to do it all: characters, plot, setting, POV, voice. The prospect is scary, so we may put off the work by hobbling ourselves. Better, in my opinion, to look unblinkingly at what’s involved, understanding that we’re imperfect writers and a struggle lies ahead.

There’s this too: we can ask ourselves if something has happened, connected or not to our writing, that has brought on the self-attack. It may be that someone has criticized our hair or our way of arranging the food on our plate or our voice quality. Or we ourselves may have done something, unconnected to writing, that we don’t approve of. If we discover the source of our unhappiness, it may detach from any association with writing, and we may be free.

As for ideas, they’re minor in the process, just raw glimmers that have to be shaped. We can’t know how useful they’ll be until we start delving into them and asking many what-if questions–without judgment.

Meanwhile, we can generate ideas about what we’d like to buy with the quarters that are piling up.

Here are three prompts:

• Let’s take that backyard setting. Make a long list of what might be in it, at least twenty-five items, some of them direct steals, like I’m thinking of the rocking chair from the old movie Psycho, which would have to be rotting by now. Vary the tone of the items: make some of them normal and cheerful and some creepy or sad because they bring up tragic memories. When you have your list, think about the plot that might come out of using some of them. Ask yourself who lives in the house, who lives next door. Who’s the mayor of the town. Relax. Don’t settle for one particular idea. Write down whatever shows up. No judgment. Let them germinate. No judgment. Imagine a conversation in the backyard. Write it down. No judgment.

• The evil queen in “Snow White” may suffer from harsh judgment herself. When the mirror tells her that Snow White has replaced her as most beautiful, she can’t handle the criticism. All that comes to mind is killing the girl. If she thinks about the other young women who are likely to come along as she ages whom she’ll also have to kill, she probably accepts her serial murderer future. It doesn’t have to go that way! Help her out and write a story in which she evolves. Extra credit if you also manage to give Snow White a personality.

• This is from Wikipedia’s description of the beginning of the plot of the medieval epic poem Beowulf:

Beowulf begins with the story of Hrothgar, who constructed the great hall Heorot for himself and his warriors. In it, he, his wife Wealhtheow, and his warriors spend their time singing and celebrating. Grendel, a troll-like monster, is pained by the sounds of joy. He attacks the hall and kills and devours many of Hrothgar’s warriors while they sleep. Hrothgar and his people, helpless against Grendel, abandon Heorot.

Beowulf, a young warrior from Geatland, hears of Hrothgar’s troubles and leaves his homeland to assist Hrothgar.

Beowulf and his men spend the night in Heorot. Beowulf refuses to use any weapon because he holds himself to be the Grendel’s equal. When Grendel enters the hall, Beowulf, who has been feigning sleep, leaps up to clench Grendel’s hand.

Imagine that Beowulf doesn’t attack Grendle immediately. Instead, the two contemplate each other silently for ten whole minutes, each one having ideas about what’s going to happen. Write the internal monologue of each one. Imagine, say, that one is a battle tactician and the other a deep thinker about philosophy.

Have fun, and save what you write!