Truth and Mommy and Daddy

Next week I’ll be in poetry school. Honest! I’ll be a non-MFA candidate in a poetry MFA program, sort of a guest, but I’ll be doing almost everything everyone else does. I don’t know if I’ll have time to post to the blog. If not, I’ll be back the following week, so please don’t desert me for another writing blog!

I’m going to answer two questions today, because I don’t have enough to say about either for a full post.

First, on May 26, 2010, F wrote, I always assumed most of the things I read in books – about a certain machine, or a process – are true, unless it’s obvious they can’t be. Do you think books have a duty to be correct in the facts they present?

F’s question followed my post of that day called “Fantastical Research,” and you may want to refer back to that post before or after you read this one.

I certainly think nonfiction has a duty to be accurate. Absolutely. Period. Of course, writers make mistakes, and even fact-checkers make mistakes, and I don’t think a jail sentence is warranted for a mistake. Still, errors in nonfiction are unfortunate. The lay reader is not going to be able to tell and will be left with an incorrect idea of the subject.

But, F, if you’re asking about fiction, I’m not sure. I also tend to believe the technical stuff in books. I used to enjoy Dick Francis’s mysteries more for the horse and racing information than for the mysteries. Same for Tony Hillerman’s mysteries, which offer insights into Native American life. Neither of them may have been strictly accurate, and who am I to know?

For as long as it lasted, I delighted in the television series, Boston Legal (adult content), but I often doubted that real-life lawyers would behave in court the way these crazy attorneys did. I’d say to my husband (also not a lawyer), “Can they do that?” If I asked the question, part of me did believe and part didn’t.

When I wrote my historical novel, Dave at Night, I tried to get my facts right, which involved extensive research, and so far no one has brought any errors to my attention. I used fictional stand-ins for real people and gave these stand-ins names similar to the actual monikers. For example, I changed the name of the heiress A’lelia Walker to Odelia Packer. Then I felt free to make Odelia say the words I gave her, whereas I never would have invented dialogue for A’lelia Walker. Also, I made up the orphanage and called it by a different name from the real orphanage my father grew up in. However, if I’d written a nonfiction history of an orphan living on the outskirts of Harlem in the 1920s, my research would have been more exhaustive.

The heroine of Ever is a talented weaver. Lucky for me, my copy editor knew something about weaving and advised me that I hadn’t gotten the details right. I had to go back and become more informed, because she definitely believed I had a duty to truth. However, I had another alternative: I might have tipped the reader off that this was a different kind of weaving, Hyte weaving, unlike any other sort. Then I could have launched into anything: looms shaped like ice cream cones, Hyte hyena-sheep whose wool is barbed and holds together on contact. The reader would understand that he wouldn’t find a rug woven in Hyte fashion in his local carpet store.

One way to clue the reader in that what’s coming is fanciful is to exaggerate, so here’s a prompt: Your main character is a carpenter who is building a cabinet for a king. Whenever His Majesty opens a drawer he will find something useful for his rule. When no one is looking, the shelves will refill themselves with new items relating to his realm. Show the carpenter going about her work. Invent the tools she uses to create the cabinet and to infuse it with magic.

Second question. On July 22, 2010, Rose wrote, What about the portrayal of parents in kids and YA lit today? I’ve read some about it on other blogs and . . . is it really necessary for the plot to have parents that aren’t there or don’t care? Just wondering what people think about this.

Dead parents are everywhere in children’s books. To name just a few: Oliver Twist, Anne of Anne of Green Gables, and Harry Potter are all orphans. My Dave in Dave at Night is one. Ella from Ella Enchanted and Addie and Meryl from The Two Princesses of Bamarre all have dead mothers and useless fathers. Aza in Fairest was abandoned by her parents.

In The Wish, Wilma’s parents are divorced. Her mother is fine and caring, but she isn’t there when the trouble happens. Which is the idea. Get the parents out of the way so the children can take center stage.

Remember the deus ex machina (god of the machine) of Greek theater? If you don’t, in Greek tragedy, a crane would lower an actor portraying a god onto the stage to save the characters from an impossible situation. Nowadays, we don’t want parents to be the deus ex machina. In traditional fairy tales the fairy is often the deus ex machina, and in contemporary revamps we don’t let the fairy fix everything either.

Sometimes the parents are the problem or part of it. In Joan Abelove’s Saying It Out Loud (middle school and up), Mindy’s mother has a brain tumor and her father is clueless about how to support his daughter through this crisis. Something similar happens in Karen Hesse’s Newbery winner Out of the Dust after Billie Jo’s mother dies. In The Birthday Room by Kevin Henkes, even though the parents are terrific, they give their son a gift that sets off the book’s major conflict.

A friend wrote a thesis about how mothers have been vilified (vilify, a great word – look it up if you need to) in children’s literature, which made me think guiltily of the stepmother in Dave at Night. When my pal discussed her paper with me I was writing Ever, and I was about to make Kezi’s mother the major villain. After we talked, I decided to go another way. So the parents do not have to be dead or uncaring; they just mustn’t solve the main character’s problems.

In fairy tales the mother is sometimes the chief baddie. Think of the mothers in “Hansel and Gretel” and “Toads and Diamonds” or the evil stepmother in “Cinderella.” (Sisters often don’t fare much better than mothers. Consider the sisters in “Beauty and the Beast” and “East of the Sun and West of the Moon.”) Here’s a prompt along these lines: Write a version of a bad-mother fairy tale in which the mother is actually terrific, but the heroine still has to endure the same sort of troubles she goes through in the original tale. A fascinating example of this is Donna Jo Napoli’s take on “Rapunzel” in her novel, Zel.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Curtain up!

First of all, big news: my very first ever published poems for adults have just come out in the fall issue (#68) of The Louisville Review, two whole entire poems. I’ve never had any interest in writing fiction for adults, but poetry is another matter.

By the way, The Louisville Review has a “Children’s Corner” for poetry by kids from kindergarten through twelfth grade. Follow this link for submissions information:

And a reminder that I’ll be signing on Friday in Fort Thomas, Kentucky. Details on the website.

Now here we go!

On July 7, 2010, Silver the Wanderer wrote, I’ve heard that the first five pages are the most important in a story, since that’s the part agents/editors/readers see first. But, of course, that’s the part I seem to be having trouble with. I’ve rewritten my beginning once already, and I think I’m going to have to do it again. My beginning just doesn’t seem engaging enough, and I can’t think of a good alternative. I need to introduce the setting, characters, and just enough back-story to leave the reader intrigued – but I can’t figure out the best way to do it. My writing is fine later on into Chapter 1, but the first five pages are really giving me a hard time.

Do you have any advice for writing beginnings?

First off, I’m hoping this is an apt post for you NaNoWriMo’s out there who are probably all about beginnings right now. Or maybe your beginning is already three chapter behind you. My hat and every other piece of apparel that can be doffed is off to you.

Regarding those “agents/editors/readers,” if the writing slides downhill on page six rather than page five, that’s where they’ll stop, especially the agents and editors. Besides, I don’t think they’re the ones to worry about. You can’t predict what they’re looking for – is it historical fiction or graphic novels or werewolves? – and if the person who picks up your manuscript is feeling grouchy or rushed or any other of a thousand things, you may be a modern Jane Austen and he’ll still send you one of those horrible form rejection letters.

But of course you’re right about needing to grab the reader fast. Some of you – probably many of you, since you’re book lovers – are forgiving readers. You give a book a chance to hook you. You may stick it out for twenty pages, fifty pages. I suspect some of you never abandon a book. Don’t write your beginnings for readers like you. Write them for reluctant readers who have to be persuaded to hang in.

I included two chapters on the subject of beginnings in Writing Magic, which you may also want to look at.

My worst beginnings nightmare was in The Two Princesses of Bamarre. I needed to start the story and also to introduce an epic poem that runs through the book, but the epic poem has a different story line from the main one. I rewrote the beginning umpteen times. It took me so long to figure out that the book went into bound galleys with a messed-up beginning, which hurt it in reviews.

I just compared the two beginnings. In the bound galleys, I started with a fragment of the poem and gave a little of the poem’s back story before moving into the tale of the novel. In the published edition I also began with the poem but then started the primary tale immediately. The difference is just a few deleted sentences, yet one version is smooth, the other bumpy. And although the change was slight, it took me weeks and quite a few intermediate attempts to get there.

So here are two beginnings suggestions. The first is to trim down to the essentials. Be ruthless with every word, phrase, and sentence.

The second suggestion is to delay the back story. Involve the reader in the front story first. Depending on what you’re writing you may need to introduce the back story quickly, maybe in the first page even, but not in the first couple of paragraphs.

This is formulaic, and if you find another way that works, certainly go for it. But in general, at the beginning, if you can, do only one thing. Think of a hypnotist (which is what an author is, in a way). She’s wagging the watch on its chain in front of her subject’s eyes, a single watch, never more than one or the trance won’t take hold.

The easiest element to start with is probably action. If you throw your characters right into a rush of events, your reader is likely to dive in too. For example, suppose you begin, He shuffled toward me. The reader will instantly want to know who he is and who me is and what the shuffling means – not that you have to explain right away.

But you can start with any facet of storytelling: setting, dialogue, thoughts, feelings, action. This suggests a prompt. (If you’re in NaNoWriMo, don’t try it right now. Wait till December.) The prompt comes from a similar prompt in a book I’ve mentioned before, What If (middle school and above), which is full of writing exercises. Write beginnings that feature each of the elements I just listed, a different beginning for each. For example, a setting beginning might start, How bland the house looked with its tan siding, white shutters, worn welcome mat. How little it gave away.

When you do this, don’t concern yourself with the story that might follow. You’re only exploring beginnings, and you’ll be most free to do that if you don’t have to think ahead.

In my example it’s the second sentence that gets the reader interested. If I’d omitted that and continued on to other bland house attributes, the reader might wonder if he’d wandered into a real estate listing. But if I went on to describe the cheery kitchen and remarked that all evidence had been erased of the day when big sister Barbara added talcum powder to the cake batter, the reader would likely sit down at the table ready to be dished more story.

So the third suggestion is to give the reader a tidbit to worry about. Maybe worry is too strong. Engage may be a better word. In Writing Magic I propose that the reader look at the beginnings of her favorite books, and I propose it again. See how quickly you were grabbed. Examine how the author did it.

At one point in flailing about for a beginning to Two Princesses, I jumped in too deep right away. I don’t want to give the story away, but I began the major crisis on the first page. The reader was too seized, too anxious to endure any of the regular stuff of establishing characters, setting, the world of the story. There are additional dangers in launching at the most critical moment: either everything that follows feels like a let-down or the story has to be cranked up to hysterical heights, and too much hysteria leads to sameness and emotion fatigue. So the fourth suggestion is to start small.

It’s nice when you can make the initial predicament be the same sort of trouble that propels the entire book. If your main character’s major problem, for example, is not fitting in, you might start with an instance of his outsider status. Other kinds of trouble can come along later, but it’s cool, in my opinion, to set out with the underlying issue. Not always possible, but cool.

Sometimes the perfect beginning comes to me right off. It did in Ella Enchanted and The Wish, and that was a gift. Usually I have to revise to get it right, which may not occur in my second draft or, as was true for Two Princesses, my twentieth. And you can’t be absolutely certain of your beginning until the first draft is finished – because you may not know what your beginning needs to do or be until you get to the end.

Here’s another prompt: Think of a story you know well, maybe a fairy tale or a myth, but not a book whose written beginning is lodged in your memory. Or you can think of a well-known character, like Sherlock Holmes, or even a historic figure, like Houdini, whom you can fictionalize. Write three beginnings to go with the tale or the character. For example, you might choose “Jack and the Beanstalk.” Write at least two pages for each one. If you like, pick one and keep going.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Making bitter sweet

Before I start, I want to point out the new link to the right, which will take you to my husband’s website for his beautiful photographs. If you need a break, it may be just the thing. In the galleries you’ll see photos on many subjects. The blog takes you through fall (so far) in southern upstate New York.

On June 30, 2010, Bearcoon wrote, How do you make rather dark characters still come across likable? I have several characters that have had a hard time previously in life and because of this are really bitter at everything, but I’d hoped people would at least sympathize with them. So far, no one really has. Are there any tips to making a lovable cynic?

Yesterday morning I took the train into New York City. I was meditating and snoozing when someone sat next to me. Her coworker took the seat behind her, and they talked. I drifted in and out of sleep and eavesdropped. The two were supervisors. My seat-mate went on about the flaws of each of her subordinates, detailing how she set them straight. I thanked my lucky stars she wasn’t my supervisor. When I opened my eyes I saw that she was young, pretty, perfectly attired for business. I hated her – in an impermanent way. I don’t wish her ill, but I really wish the people who work for her very well.

I’m being unfair, I’m sure. She may have been absolutely right in the way she handled each situation. She may also volunteer at a local hospital, take in injured pigeons, give half her salary to disaster assistance. And she may have to be perfect because a parent criticized her mercilessly when she was little. I still took no pleasure in her company.

This may be the crux of the problem. The bitter characters may not be fun to be around on the page. Even if the reader understands, for example, that Sean’s father beat him with a belt whenever he didn’t finish his string beans, if he whines on the page, the reader may have little sympathy. In fact, knowing about the beatings may make matters worse, because the reader may feel guilty for disliking Sean and may like him even less as a result, and may go so far as to put down the story he’s in.

When I was a young woman I knew a villain, a real life villain, who had no one’s best interest at heart but his own. It took me a while to figure this out, but thanks to my husband I escaped relatively unscathed. This guy probably had an awful childhood, although I know nothing about it. But, oh my, he was fun – funny, original. A conversation with him was always fascinating. When he wanted to, he could make me feel as brilliant as he was, and when he wanted, he could make me feel as dumb as a termite. He would make a great character on the page. The reader would enjoy being in his company even while recognizing his villainy.

So the first strategy would be to make your dark characters fun on the page. Bitterness can be expressed with humor, and humor is usually appealing. Self-awareness too. The cynic who knows she’s being unreasonable and says so often wins the reader’s forgiveness.

In The Two Princesses of Bamarre, the dragon Vollys is evil. She intends to kill the main character Addie, who is in her clutches. The reader knows this and still loves her, possibly because he understands she’s desperately lonely. Her tragedy is that she always annihilates the people she loves. She traps them, comes to adore them, then has to spend every minute in their company until they start to drive her crazy. Then she murders them and misses them instantly and mourns them eternally.

One reason the reader cares for Vollys is because she appreciates Addie, whom the reader identifies with. It’s as if Vollys loves the reader. It’s hard to dislike someone who loves you.

So that’s a second strategy. If your bitter character hates the world with one exception, your main, the reader will discount the world and be content.

Vollys is also expert at showing her side of things. Dragons and humans have battled for centuries. She reveals the dragon side of the conflict. In the way she tells it the reader has to sympathize. A human hero stabbed Vollys’s mother, and Vollys recites a moving poem about her death. Another strategy: show events from the bitter character’s perspective. In an old horror movie, Repulsion (definitely adult, and only for adults who like to be scared witless), the heroine is also the villain. She’s going mad and strikes out when she thinks she’s being threatened. The threats are imagined, but the viewer sees them too. She’s impossible to hate because we know she acts out of insane self-defense.

In my books about the fairies of Neverland, the fairy Vidia cares only about flying fast. She’s nasty and self-centered, but she’s funny, and occasionally the reader glimpses a better self. Those glimpses are enough to make her sympathetic. So, allow your bitter character an occasional moment of innocence.

Even a whiny, annoying character will be tolerated by the reader if your main character loves him. Let’s imagine that your main, Thea, babysits a troubled nine-year old, Ricky, who is in a terrible mood when the reader meets him. He torments Thea because he knows how to push her buttons. She may be mad at him, but she still loves him, and in her thoughts she tells the reader why. It could go something like this: Thea sat back in the couch, stunned. When she’d told Ricky about feeling stupid she never thought he’d use the information against her. From his triumphant face she saw he’d been saving it up. Then he ducked his head as if he expected her to strike him. She saw the curls at the nape of his neck and his tee shirt label sticking out. Her fury melted. The bonus here is that the reader winds up even more pro-Thea than before. You can try this.

Along the same lines – and this is one more strategy – a narrator’s affection for a character can make the reader like him. This is from Peter Pan by James M. Barrie, a few pages after Captain Hook has wantonly killed one of his own pirates: Hook heaved a heavy sigh; and I know not why it was, perhaps it was because of the soft beauty of the evening, but there came over him a desire to confide to his faithful bo’sun the story of his life. Later on, Peter fools Hook into thinking he’s a codfish. Who can hate such a silly man?

Consider fictional characters you know who are mixed blessings but beloved anyway. Think about how the author has reconciled you to them. Go back to the books and examine how it was done, the sentences and incidents that created the effect.

Possibly the best thing about this blog is the sharing. If you have ideas about making difficult characters likable, please chime in.

Here’s a prompt: Hazel has had an unhappy life–abuse, neglect; the few good people in her life have been lost to her. She began to form a connection with one of her teachers, but he just humiliated her in front of her classmates. In her journal (her only friend) she plots revenge. Write the journal entry, and make the reader like her.

Have fun, and save what you write!


This will be the last post in The Criticism Series unless anyone has follow-up questions.  Grace wrote that she and her writing buddy are starting a critique group, and then she asked, I’ve never really critiqued anyone’s writing before, I’ve only had people critique mine. Since I’m going to critique group next week, does anyone have any idea how to provide good, honest critique?
Many of you reading this probably have critique group experience, and I hope you’ll share your thoughts.

Every group is different.  Some meet only online.  Some are small, three or four writers.  Some are big, with a floating membership; different people show up from meeting to meeting.  Groups meet weekly, biweekly, monthly, or as needed.

Some are highly structured.  Maybe only three writers present work at each meeting and presenting rotates.  The time spent on each piece is limited and monitored.  There may be a group leader.  There may be a page limit of, say, ten pages.

Others are more free-wheeling: discussion can last as long as it lasts; as many people can present as have work; no length limit.

Or anything in between.

Some groups email work to one another before getting together.  I prefer this.  My first reaction to something isn’t always trustworthy.  I like to sit with a piece for a while.

In some groups, the piece is read aloud, usually not by its author, because problems tend to jump out when you hear your work, and, if a reader stumbles, there may be a wording problem at that spot.

Whether you receive material ahead of time or not, it’s important to have a copy for everyone at the meeting to follow along with the reader.  Otherwise the words go by too fast, and people miss thingsh or may mishear.

Writers have different expectations from critique groups.  I tend to line edit everything I read, and I welcome line edits from others, but some critique members don’t want that; they want to hear about only the major plot and character issues (which I address as well when I see them).  One time, I joined a critique group and plowed in with all my tiny edits only to have the other members look at me in shock and dismay.  Best to discuss this in advance.

(What is a line edit?  It’s the little things like word repetition, sentence sameness, uncertainty about who’s speaking, and so on.)

Before you join a group, it’s worth considering what you’d like to get out of it.  Do you want line edits or just big-picture criticism?  Are you okay with sharing parts of your manuscript, or do you want a group that is willing to look at the entire thing?  Would you be willing to put in the time to go over someone else’s three hundred pages?  Do you even have that kind of time?

If there isn’t much to choose from in your area, you may have to take what you can get, but it still makes sense to think about.  Once you’re in a group you may be able to move it in the direction you prefer.

Okay.  Let’s assume you’re in Grace’s enviable situation.  You’ve just formed a critique group.  How do you “provide good, honest critique?”

If you receive the work ahead of time, read it over twice with some time between readings if possible.  I suggest you mark it up in pencil (not red), so you can change your mind.  When I go over something, I usually write my line edits on the manuscript.  If I think something should be deleted, I put parentheses around it.  I never strike through someone’s words, because that feels like an assault to me.  And all my comments are just suggestions.

For broad issues, I keep a separate list, generally a short list.  Big comments might be that a certain character isn’t likable (and then I show the places that led me to this conclusion) or that I don’t believe a particular character would behave as portrayed.

I just went back to my post from last November 18th on revision, and I suggest you revisit it too, because much of what applies to revising your own writing, applies to editing the writing of others.  In your critiques you can go into all the elements that I listed then, including plot, character, setting, voice, detail.

Possibly the most important and useful thing to watch for in a manuscript is your own confusion.  Did you fail to understand something?  If you did, it is likely not your fault.  Something is probably missing, or something has misled you in a way that the author didn’t intend.  Pointing out the place of your confusion is likely to be helpful to your critique buddy.

Your very valuable quality, maybe the most valuable, is that you are a good reader.  You’ve read lots of books; you know what you like and what irritates you, and you bring that background to your critiquing.

Of course you should say what you like before launching into the problems.  Every editorial letter I’ve ever gotten has begun with the good stuff.  There have been a few times, however, when I haven’t liked anything, and then I don’t say that, but I jump right into the criticism.  That is what we’re there for.  In those instances, however, I may not point out every little thing that bothered me.  The small stuff can wait until the major problems have been fixed.

Don’t be the critique member who says nothing.  Push yourself.  You can be silent for a few meetings, but after that, try to speak up.  If you don’t, other members may conclude you’re there only to receive feedback and not to give any, even though the truth may be simple shyness or lack of confidence.

I was in a certain critique group for years.  We all knew each other.  Most of us had become friends.  We’d shared many pieces of writing.  And yet, whenever it was my turn to receive criticism, I was scared.  Every single time!  For years!  Sometimes I went first, but I never wanted to.  I always wanted to ease into it.  Then, all I really wanted to hear was that every word I’d written was a marvel.  But once we got into my story and people started giving their helpful comments, after a few minutes, I calmed down and my blood pressure returned to normal and I appreciated what was coming my way.

Some of you have written that you don’t like to show your work until it’s as good as you can make it.  That’s fine if – if you don’t get locked in an endless cycle of revision that keeps you from going on to new writing and if you are ever satisfied enough to expose your work to helpful eyes.

The wonderful thing about criticism, the part that makes even the rare hurt worthwhile, is that you get a fresh perspective.  Your critiquers will see your words in ways that will surprise you.  They’ll find themes and ideas and, naturally, problems that you were blind to.  But you’ll never be completely blind again.  You may repeat your mistakes, but you’ll be broadened, and you’ll begin not to repeat.  The smallest thing, even a suggested word choice that is outside your range will expand you.

Some of what makes us writers is our curiosity about people.  When you’re part of a critique group and you read other writers’ halting efforts, you change perspective.  It’s a different kind of intimacy from a friendship, although friendships can develop, but there will also be this, an understanding that only writers have, or maybe that only artists have.

Hooray for critique groups!

Here’s a prompt:  Three critique buddies are meeting.  Write their session, and in the course of it, give glimpses of the manuscripts, which both reveal and disguise aspects of their authors’ lives.  Follow the members after the critique session as they reenter their situations.

Have fun and save what you write!

Help wanted

A bunch of questions followed my September 29th post about accepting writing criticism.  Chantal wrote, I’m running into the problem of who to give my novel to for reading. I know I need some outside opinions before it’s complete, but I’m wary about just handing out my novel to everyone who offers, even if I do know them. Do you have any advice?

And Erin Edwards offered these excellent suggestions:  A good question to ask a prospective and willing reader is what kind of books they like to read. Ask if they like books that you think are similar to yours in genre, tone, and/or age group, etc.

Writing requires enormous patience, as we all know.  Finding the right critics sometimes calls for patience too.  It’s like moving to a new town or a new school.  For a while you try out friends before you find ones who suit.  Of the people who’ve offered to read your novel, you may just have to guess about who is best equipped for the task.  If your first readers don’t work out, try other people.  You may be surprised at who can help you.

Going through someone else’s novel is a big job.  If your reader isn’t experienced at criticism, he may not realize the complexity of the undertaking and may not be able to finish.  I don’t think you should be angry at such a failure or think that it reflects badly on either the person or your book.  Just give it to someone else.

You may need to have a discussion ahead of time with the person or people.  What does he think is involved?  Has he ever done this before?  What would you like to know from him?  How specific would you like him to be?  How fragile are you when it comes to your writing?  You probably don’t want to give away much about your book, because you don’t want to influence the reading.  Of course, if you’ve written a novel in experimental literature and the sentences don’t have ordinary meaning, you should prepare him, but if you’ve written a coming of age novel, for example, you needed say that, and if you think it falls apart from Chapter Fifteen to Chapter Eighteen, don’t mention this.  You want to see if your reader has that response too without being told ahead of time.  Naturally, you can ask afterward.

Also, you can start small and give your reader a chapter and see how that goes.  If all is well, you can give her the whole book.

When I was starting out I had the advantage of living in New York City where one can hardly step outside without tripping over a writer.  I formed critique groups with writing class members and members of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI).  The groups kept falling apart, and I kept forming new ones.  A couple of years passed before I found a group that stayed together for a few years until it, too, disintegrated.  But for a while I was blessed.  Most of us were writing novels so we tolerated lots of pages from one another.

Even if you don’t live in a city, you can benefit from SCBWI, if you’re old enough to join (eighteen and up).  Your regional chapter will help you find or form a critique group.

If you’re under eighteen, you might see if a librarian or an English or Creative Writing teacher would look at your work.  The first readers of my very first book were two children’s librarians, who happened not to be great at criticism but who were fabulous at encouragement.  You also might join your school newspaper or literary magazine to find other writers.

A few days ago I listened to a radio program about frenemies.  I suggest you not give your book to a frenemy.

At the time I wrote that very first book, I lived on the same street as a published children’s book writer.  I hardly knew her, but I prevailed upon her to read my effort – I didn’t realize what an imposition that was.  When she gave the book back to me, she said, “You’re not a writer.”  Curiously I wasn’t devastated.  She did think one little bit in the book was funny, and she asked why I wanted to write when I could draw; there were my pencil drawings of birds in the book.  I discovered that she would much rather have been an illustrator than a writer, and somehow that took the sting out of her words.

If you can afford it, there are free-lance editors you can pay to look at your work and guide you.  If you know someone in publishing, that person may be able to give you a name, but they also advertise in writers’ magazines.   A good one can be enormously helpful, but of course be careful.  Look at the website.  Ask for references and follow up.

I have space in the post for another question on this topic.  More than one of you had the same question as Silver the Wanderer: …how do you know when someone is being honest with their criticism? Those who have read my work are really enthusiastic about it, but I’m not sure if that’s just because I’m young. Compliments are always nice, but I really need honest feedback. I think people might just be telling me it’s good so as to not hurt my feelings…

First of all, the compliments may be true.  Your readers may be very impressed.

Or you may not have found the right readers.  They may not have a clue about how to evaluate a piece of writing.  Enthusiasm, which may be genuine, may be all they have to offer.

Or they may not want to hurt your feelings.  That’s possible.  They may also be afraid that you’ll be angry, and they may be protecting themselves from a confrontation.

Which is why it is best if possible to find writers, because writers understand that writers need criticism.

Alas, dishonesty can be nasty as well as nice, and it can be anything in between.  A reader may be feeling rivalrous and may not want to say how much he liked what you wrote.  He may not be big enough to point out the terrific aspects of your story.  He may even be villainous enough to name flaws your story doesn’t have.  I haven’t experienced this, but a writer buddy once later confessed that she had given me story suggestions out of motives that were outside the story.  Nothing terrible had happened as a result, and I appreciated her belated candor.  At the time I had no idea.

So you may not be able to tell if a response is honest, and you may be hurt by a response, even by true criticism that you learn from.  The most important thing is to concentrate on your work, not on your feelings, and how to make the writing better.

Here’s a prompt: Three writer friends get together to discuss one another’s work.  Write the scene.  Invent snippets of the stories of each one.  I said not to show your writing to a frenemy, but two of your characters can be frenemies.  If you like, you can make up the most awful critique session imaginable, or you can be milder, but you need some tension.  You can be funny or serious or even tragic.  You can go into fantasy; the writers don’t have to be human.

Next week, another post about critiquing.  If you have more questions on the subject, please send them along.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Madame Red Pencil, the Editor

Before I start the regular post, and in case you missed it, on the website there’s now a color sketch of the cover for A Tale of Two Castles.  In your comments after my post about covers, many of you expressed a preference for painted covers, and that’s what this is.

Also, I’ll be signing in Kingston, New York, this Saturday and in Fort Thomas, Kentucky in November.  If you’re nearby, check out the details on the website.

Last week I  wrote about this question by Erin Edwards: How do you cope with revision requests/suggestions, or did you never have a problem with them?  But I didn’t get to her second question:  Do you find that they were easier or harder to take after you got a contract or had a book published?

Before I had my first contract, when I was sending manuscripts out, most of my criticism came from the teacher I mentioned last week, Bunny Gabel, and the writers in my critique group.  But occasionally an actual editor would send a suggestion along with a rejection.  If the editor went to the trouble of giving advice, I took this as an invitation to revise and resend – if the advice felt reasonable and seemed a good fit for my story.  Way back then I had total freedom: the editor certainly wasn’t eagerly waiting for a revision.

In every case, when I revised and resent, the manuscript was rejected again.  Further suggestions might be made, with less enthusiasm, and I might revise and resend again.  This wasn’t a fast process.  If I was fixing a novel, revising would take at least a month, and the response always took many months to arrive.  But with the exception of the picture book I described last week, I always felt that I had improved my story.

However, although I had no success, some of my writing friends did.  They established relationships with editors, understood what was wanted, and were rewarded with contracts.

Eventually I did get to work with editors, and of course there are differences.  When a criticism comes from another writer or from a friend, I have context.  If I’m in a critique group, I know my critique buddies pretty well.  I’ve read their stories and seen how they react to other writers’ work.  I’ve experienced their strengths and their blind spots.  When a critique buddy offers a criticism I usually know how to understand it.  Almost the same was true of Bunny.  Although I never saw her writing, I did watch her response to my classmates’ material.

With an editor, much of that is missing.  Usually we have available to read only editorial letters and emails.  The editor – let’s call her Madame Red Pencil – may never have written fiction as an adult – and can still be a marvelous editor.  We can’t tell how she evaluates other authors’ work, only our own.  If, for example, she hates flashbacks, everyone’s flashbacks not just ours, we won’t know unless she tells us.

In both cases, there’s a relationship to preserve.  I don’t want to lose a friend over criticism or to reach an impossible place with an editor.  And with an editor, even if there is a contract, she can decide not to publish the book or that she can’t bear to work with me ever again.

Naturally some editors are better than others, and certainly there needs to be a good fit between the editor and the writer.  In general, Madame Pencil won’t acquire a manuscript unless she loves it.  This is because she has to read it again and again during the editing, and she has to be its booster in the publishing house.  So the most important relationship ingredients are there from the start.  She adores your work, and she’s primed to adore you because you created this marvel.  And, most likely, you’re primed to feel good about her because she gets you.  Maybe she’s the only one who noticed how gradually and carefully you built up the cruelty of your villain.

With luck, her edits will be even more helpful than the suggestions of your critique pals.  It’s her job to crawl inside your story, to see it from within itself.  Then it’s her job to grasp it as a whole too, and also to figure out how it can become its best incarnation, and to present her ideas in a way that you understand, and if you don’t get it right away, it’s her job to rephrase.  When all this happens, yes, an editor’s criticism is easier to take.

When I first handed in the draft that eventually became The Fairy’s Return, my editor wrote in her editorial letter that my heroine was a buffoon, and she didn’t mean it in a good way.  Fortunately or unfortunately, I knew she was right.  Luckily she had a suggestion that showed me what to do.

The editorial letter I got in response to Fairest was eighteen single-spaced pages.  In it my Madame Red Pencil told me to cut entire chapters.  I reacted as I usually do to a long editorial letter – with fright.  Could I do what was being asked of me?

Editors don’t have all the answers.  Sometimes Madame Pencil can see a problem but not how to solve it.  Or she may make a suggestion that doesn’t suit my approach.  When I wrote The Two Princesses of Bamarre, my editor and I both knew that the beginning was a mess, and neither of us had a clue as to how to straighten it out.  Eventually I got it on my own.

By now I’ve worked with a bunch of editors, some more gifted than others.  The worst edit – absolutely useless – I’ve ever received was the most enthusiastic.  This editor wrote Ooh! and Ah! and Eek! here and there in the margins, and that was it.  The only suggestion she made was wrong.  Sometimes I have complete certainty, and this time I had it.  When I explained my reason, she agreed.  This reminds me of the comments from some of you on the last post that friends give you only positive feedback, and you don’t know whether or not to believe it or how to proceed.

But even if the overly enthusiastic editor hadn’t agreed with me about her sole edit, I wouldn’t have done it.  Madame Pencil’s edits are suggestions, and this is understood by both of us.  Ultimately the book is yours, and you have final say.

My editor and I initially disagreed about The Wish.  She wanted a different book and I wanted the book I’d written.  For a little while it looked like she was going to reject it.  In the end she didn’t, and she edited it, and I took her edits seriously and worked to understand and use them as much as I could –

Which is my policy in general.  In minor matters if I disagree with an edit, I just don’t do it, but in major matters, I explain and discuss, and sometimes I can be persuaded, and sometimes the editor can be.  Our interests are exactly the same.  Your critique pals and mine and Madame Red Pencil all want the book to fulfill its potential and find lots of readers.

No prompts again, but save what you’re writing, and have fun!

Taking It

On June 12, 2010, Erin Edwards wrote, How do you cope with revision requests/suggestions, or did you never have a problem with them? Do you find that they were easier or harder to take after you got a contract or had a book published?

When I was starting out and hadn’t yet tried my hand at a novel and all my picture book manuscripts were being rejected, I wrote one that garnered editorial interest.  The story was about a girl, maybe four years old, miserable when bedtime came and her parents were having a party for grownups.  Awake in bed, she decided to dress up as an old lady and crash the party.  She did and was the life of it.

In the story I didn’t say whether or not the adults were onto her, and editors didn’t know what to do with the ambiguity.  I received editorial suggestions that I attempted to follow in revisions.  One editor even met with me.  He talked about “warm storytelling” and suggested I read Jon Scieszka’s The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, which I dutifully did (it’s great!).  Afterward, I felt that I had an epiphany and really learned something about craft, rewrote the story in a state of great excitement, submitted it – and this editor hated it.

With each revision, the charm of my original story melted away and I couldn’t get it back.  Finally, I saw it was permanently lost and stopped submitting it.

However, nothing like this has ever happened to me since.  I included the anecdote because it can happen, and when it does, it’s really sad.  Maybe the trouble in this case was that the story hung on that gossamer thread between adult belief and disbelief.  Possibly it would have resolved itself if the editors had left the uncertainty to an illustrator to interpret.

Again when I was starting out, I joined critique group after critique group (they tended to fall apart after a while) and I kept taking writing classes.  In my first critique group we were all beginners and none of us knew what we were doing.  We just offered each other what we could, at that point more as readers than writers.  I decided that I should try all criticism.  If a suggestion didn’t work, I could go back.

But usually they did work, and I learned.

A friend of mine had a brain injury that has left her with limited ability to hold onto new memories.  She can’t hear a fact and remember it, but she can still learn by repetition, by doing, through something called implicit learning.  We all learn some things implicitly, like how to ride a bike or how to swim, and I think most writing learning is implicit.  For example, I may read that writers should vary their sentence structures, but just reading the words and remembering them isn’t enough.  I have to try out the suggestion in a mechanical way many times before the practice becomes part of the way I write.

Before I got published I took a writing class that I loved and repeated again and again.  Bunny Gabel, our marvelous teacher, who has since retired, conducted the class as a workshop.  At the end of every class we would drop our week’s writing on her desk.  By the next week she would have picked a chapter of a novel or an entire picture book of three students to read aloud.  She wouldn’t identify the writer, and when she finished, the class would weigh in, constructively of course.  At the end of the student comments, she’d give her own.  The writer was not supposed to speak, just to listen.  In the years I took the class nobody ever broke the code.

Just listening works well under any circumstance.  If we explain or defend, the criticism doesn’t penetrate.  We need to sit with it before we understand its value – or worthlessness.

In class, the level of the criticism was high.  A bunch of the students were published and most of the class were repeaters like me.  At the beginning of every semester, Bunny laid out how the class worked, and she always said that any and all comments could be entirely wrong.  For me, sometimes they were.  The class was hearing a chapter only, so occasionally they couldn’t judge.  Luckily, some of my classmates were in a critique group with me, and I could ask them if an opinion was off-base.

I’m better now at knowing which criticism is worth listening to and which isn’t.  Experience has made me better.  Writing is weird, and I think it’s that implicit learning.  Every book is a different challenge, and what I learned on my last book may not apply to my next.  I feel like a perpetual beginner, and I am, because we learn to write for as long as we do write.  At the same time, I have attained some mastery – and I owe a lot of it to that class and to other criticism I’ve gotten along the way.  I learned the advice implicitly by doing, and now the voices of my fellow students whisper as I work, Am I revealing feelings?  Can the reader see what’s going on?  Have I remembered the other senses in addition to sight?  Am I writing ideas in order?

So how to tell if criticism is on target?  In your comments on the blog I see that many of you are good critics of your own work; you know what your weaknesses are.  When someone criticizes an aspect you know is difficult for you, that’s criticism to believe.  If more than one person identifies the same problem, you probably should pay attention.  If someone fails to understand something you wrote, that is worth looking at.  In fact, when a reader says she’s confused, her confusion may be the most useful criticism of all.

One of the things I love about writing for kids is that there are standards.  One can judge.  Someone can really tell me what’s wrong with my story.  For example, there isn’t enough tension, or the story is too long, or my main character is annoying in a bad way.

But when I used to paint there didn’t seem to be an objective standard and, maybe as a consequence, I never found my way.  If I visit a show of contemporary art and see badly drawn images I can’t tell if that’s the artist’s intent or if he’s a lousy draftsman.  I love art and my taste is broad, but sometimes I’m clueless.

I’ve mentioned that I’ve gotten very interested in poetry.  Last night I was working on a poem and making extra spaces between words and lines for a certain effect.  I’m not sure if I was being too obvious or doing something good, and I don’t know if anyone can tell me or, even if another poet has an opinion, if that opinion is valid.  Much as I love poetry, this makes me uneasy.  In kids’ books something is right or it isn’t.  Poets can actually use incorrect grammar on purpose and that’s okay.  Aaa!

In our writing, the only kinds of criticism we need to be wary of are global criticism as in, You’re not much of a writer, dear, and harping criticism that isn’t meant to help.  If someone insults your writing, don’t show it to that person again.  No second chances, in my opinion.  And if someone nitpicks and you come to understand the nitpicker doesn’t mean your writing well, cut that connection too.  The person can still be your best friend, but not your writing buddy.

And the only recipient of criticism who needs to be very careful is the writer who is already too hard on herself.  If that’s you, cultivate kindness to yourself.  When you show your work for criticism, warn the person that you’re fragile.  This is okay to do.  You in particular may misunderstand and think that what you’re being told is worse than it really is.  Double check to make sure you understand.  Ask, if you need to, if your critic thinks you should trash your story – before jumping to the conclusion that that’s exactly what he does think.

I’m almost at the end and I haven’t talked about how getting criticism changes once one is published or accepted for publication.  It changes enormously, and the answer segues into working with an editor, which I think is worth a whole post, so I’ll continue next week.

The only prompt is to be brave and show your work to other writers, to friends who are big readers, to teachers, librarians.  If you’re not accustomed to doing this, observe yourself as you take in the comments that come back.  Write down what you need to remember.  Don’t argue.  Work on developing a thick skin.  Then return to your computer and try out the edits, being sure to save your earlier drafts.

Meanwhile, keep writing, save everything, and have fun!

Why fairy tales?

On May 16, 2010, lilyofseafoam wrote, I suppose this is a question of meaning…so I will post it here because I’m not sure where to send questions.

    I am working on an undergraduate project on fairy tales involving normative social control, Humanism, and some other aspects that I’ve yet to find a name for. I read your Princess Tales and fell in love with the humanity of all of your characters, and I wondered why you chose to re-tell old tales. Is there any meaning to your experience or any message you are trying to send children through them? (I guess the real question is “Why fairy tales?”)

I suspect this answer is much too late for your project.  Sorry!

Normative isn’t a word I often use, so I looked it up on and read this:

1.    of or pertaining to a norm, esp. an assumed norm regarded as the standard of correctness in behavior, speech, writing, etc.

2.    tending or attempting to establish such a norm, esp. by the prescription of rules: normative grammar.

3.    reflecting the assumption of such a norm or favoring its establishment: a normative attitude.

These seem like two definitions rather than three: reflecting norms – standards, morals – that exist, and setting up new ones.  I’d guess that when fairy tales were first told and when they were originally collected and written down, part of their purpose was to pass on community values to children.  I’m thinking of folk fairy tales, the kind that the Brothers Grimm put in their books, not original fairy tales like the ones Hans Christian Andersen wrote.

It was reasonable then and still is to warn children about wolves in whatever form they may take and to let them know the possible serious consequences of lying.  Probably reasonable to laud courageous boys and docile girls during times when women had few options; if one’s lot is constricted and rebellion is doomed, an accepting attitude may be the only route to happiness.

I looked up humanism too and found this definition among others: “any system or mode of thought or action in which human interests, values, and dignity predominate.”  Some fairy tales are religious, but most aren’t.  They’re generally about coping in this world with the help of fairies, genies, seven-league boots, and other magical paraphernalia.

Last winter I was invited to be the guest speaker at a tea at Yale.  Before I spoke, the young woman who invited me said that most of her classmates hadn’t read the classic fairy tales in their original versions.  Instead, the stories were known through Disney and other modern interpreters, like me.  Many parents are keeping their children away from the grimness of Grimm.  This could mean that norms have changed or that the ways the old norms were transmitted have changed, as we now have movies and television.  Parents may no longer want to scare their children witless in order to teach them to obey (“Little Red Riding Hood”) or to be truthful (“The Boy Who Cried Wolf”) or not to lose themselves in rage and jealousy (“Snow White”).

As a child I read jillions of fairy tales.  They didn’t scare me.  The most horrific tale, in my opinion, “Hansel and Gretel” because the parents abandon their children, didn’t trouble me.  I was just glad the witch got her comeuppance and that Gretel was clever enough to give it to her.  But I did soak up at least some of the fairy tale messages.  I wanted to be blond and tall and have a handsome prince fall wildly in love with me on sight alone.  If I was blond and tall and gorgeous and he loved me, then I would never say anything awkward, my blouse would never come halfway out of my skirt, I wouldn’t get hives on my face; I would never be ordinary or imperfect again.

I’m glad my parents didn’t keep the fairy tales from me.  My imagination is richer for them.  And they connected me to the fundamental struggles we all face.

Then I grew up and didn’t look at fairy tales again until I started writing at the age of thirty-nine.  But when I did start, my imagination zipped right back there, to revising fairy tales and making up my own.  The first fairy tale I fooled around with eventually turned into the first of The Princess Tales, The Fairy’s Mistake, which is based on “Toads and Diamonds.”  If you remember the story, there’s a pretty and sweet sister who has jewels and flowers coming out of her mouth and a mean and ugly sister who has snakes and toads exiting between her lips.  Naturally, the prince falls in love with the pretty and sweet one and decides that the falling jewels can be her dowry.  They marry and live happily ever after.  And the mean, ugly sister goes into the forest and dies of mean ugliness.  When I thought about it, I realized the prince would really fall in love with the jewels rather than a girl he just met, and the terrible sister could make the creepy crawlies work for her.

In that book I was writing about three character types we experience in real life: people who take advantage of others (the prince), people who have to learn how to stand up for themselves (the sweet sister), and people who know what they want and go after it in a direct way (my favorite, the mean sister).  There’s also the bumbling fairy who tries to help, who stands for ineffective do-gooders.

Not that I thought of any of this while I was writing; I just got it right now.

If the idea had occurred to me, I could have developed modern characters who exemplify these traits.  I like contemporary stories.  So why not frame this kind of situation in a twenty-first century way?  My novel, The Wish, is set in New York City in recent times.  There is a fantasy element, but the action focuses on eighth graders in an invented middle school.

Writing The Wish was hard!  I don’t feel I know popular culture.  I rarely go to the movies and haven’t listened to many current musicians.  Weirdly, I have to do more research for a contemporary novel than for a fantasy one.  Still, I might write a sequel to The Wish someday.  I’m proud of it, and I left openings for a follow-up.

But I have other reasons for writing fantasy in addition to laziness.  Exaggerated gestures and unrestrained feeling work in fairy tales.  The jewels and flowers and the toads and snakes dramatically represent the natures of the two sisters in “Toads and Diamonds.”  In “Snow White” the queen expresses her fury and jealousy and desperation with a poisoned comb, a deadly corset, and a poisoned apple.  That kind of grandness is hard to achieve in a modern setting without slipping back into fantasy.

In fairy tales big ideas can be worked out on a big stage.  And there’s clarity.  Even though I don’t think about themes when I write, they’re still there.  Of course, my meanings aren’t the same as in the original tales, and they’re more complex, I hope.  I never extol beauty for its own sake or submissiveness and certainly not obedience.  Often I let the villain off the hook, according to some.  The meanings are generally aimed at me.  For example, I’m a worrier and The Two Princesses of Bamarre is about finding courage.  Other people worry too, so the story reaches them as well.

And then there’s the fun factor.  I loved writing how it felt when a snake exited from the evil sister’s mouth.  Or how it was to turn to stone in Fairest.

Here are some prompts:

•    Think of what the characters in a fairy tale might represent.  For example, take “Rapunzel.”  This is only one interpretation, but maybe the witch stands for despotism, the maiden in the tower for despotism’s victim, the prince for an outside liberator.  Can you think of other possibilities for this tale, like maybe the maiden represents fear?  Pick a different fairy tale and think of what the characters represent.  Write down more than one interpretation.  If you feel like it, pick another tale.

•    Now take the fairy tale and the archetypes you’ve identified and put them in a contemporary story.  Write a scene or the whole story.  Notice how the change affects the story.

•    Going the other way, take a contemporary story you’ve written or a novel or movie or TV show by someone else and recast it as a fairy tale.  Write a scene or the whole thing.  Notice how it changes.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Aaa! Action!

As you see above, the website is up and running.  Please let me know what you think if you haven’t commented already or have more to say.  It’s still a work in progress.

Announcement: Yesterday was Betsy Red Hoodie Day, when my second Betsy book (the first was Betsy Who Cried Wolf!) was released.  You can read about both books on the website.

And check out my upcoming appearances on the “What’s New” page.

When you ask a question on the blog and I say I’m going to add it to my list, the list is a document called “blog ideas,” and each week I mark off the last question I answered and go on to the next.  Today when I went to the next question, it was this from Sami: “How do you write a love story if you have never been in love?!?!? I want to but don’t know how..”  I realized this was one I already covered – on Wednesday, June 9th, in a post called “Un-sappy Romance.”  So Sami, I’m not ignoring your question, and please take a look at that post.  If you – or anyone – have more questions on the subject, please let me know.

The next question, on May 6th from Abigail, was about covers, but I discussed covers on August 4th, “Cover Musings.”  Abigail, if you have more questions about covers, please post them.

Now for today’s topic, on May 7th, 2010, Rose wrote, …do you have any suggestions on writing action or fight scenes in books? Things that happen fast are especially hard to capture, because it takes so long to say that it happened, even if it happens quite quickly. I think I especially need help on writing large battle scenes because I have no idea where to start. However, if you haven’t done this sort of thing much, that’s fine too – I was just fishing for whatever help I could get.

I wrote a battle scene in The Two Princesses of Bamarre and my recent Disney Fairies book, Fairies and the Quest for Never Land, and I wrote a fight scene in Dave at Night.  In Fairies and the Quest for Never Land, the battle is between the fairies, aided by a human girl, and a dragon.  It lasts a few pages in two segments and gave me more trouble than the entire rest of the book.  Speed was one problem and where everyone was was another.

The battle takes place on a plateau, so I needed to make up landmarks.  I invented a tree, the only one for miles, a petrified log, and a pile of stones.  Then I drew a map, a rough one, no work of art, and I had the three landmarks form a triangle.  No matter what happened, I knew where the action was relative to at least one landmark, because if I don’t know where the characters are and if I can’t visualize the scene, the reader doesn’t stand a chance.

In Dave at Night, the fight scene, really a beating, takes place in the orphanage superintendent’s office, a small space, but I still drew a map: desk, knickknack case, electric fireplace, door.

Short sentences can help move things along and give the feeling of the rush of  action.  This is a snippet from the battle against monsters in The Two Princesses of Bamarre:

…Her sword flashed.  Blood spurted from the ogre’s neck.  He pitched over.  She stood and ran at the falls.
    I raced to catch up.  An ogre leaped between us, his head and shoulders swathed in cloud.  Another cloud-ogre lurched about nearby.

Short phrases in long sentences work too.  Here’s an example, also from Two Princesses:

    Rhys hovered, just higher than the ogres’ heads, pointing his baton at one ogre, then another, wrapping them in cloud.

A battle can have a cast of thousands, but of course it’s impossible to show what a thousand people are doing, so the author needs a camera with a zoom lens.  Zoom way out to show the armies assembling, then in on the important characters.  It’s been a long while since I read Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, but if I remember correctly he’s a master of shifting in close and out again, and it may be worthwhile to read a few of his battle scenes.

You have to wield that camera even in a fight, when there aren’t many characters.  Say your main character, Jesse, is attacked by three bullies.  If you’re writing from his point of view, you can show only as much as he’s taking in.  As the bullies approach, the camera zooms out to see them all.  Once the melee starts, the camera comes in close.  Jesse may see two coming at him, but the third has circled to attack from behind.  The view may narrow next to one boy.  If Jesse falls he may see only the left sneaker of one bully or two inches of pavement.  Same for sounds.  Before the action starts, with his senses on full alert, he may hear children playing, a mosquito whining, an ice cream truck going by.  But once the first bully makes the first threat, he’ll be listening only for noises that endanger him.  If a fire truck passes, sirens blaring, he probably won’t hear it. 

Same for smells.  Once the fight starts he probably will no longer be aware of the newly mown grass a few yards away.  But he’ll be noticing the sour odor of his own sweat.

If you’re writing in third-person omniscient, the task is harder, because you have to decide at every turn where to point the camera.  But you still need to focus in here, pull back, and focus out there.

Even though the pace is breakneck, don’t omit details, because they’ll bring the scene to life.  In this, think of the camera as a movie camera.  The camera is rolling until you freeze the frame to linger on a bully’s screaming mouth, his sweaty upper lip, his nostrils, which seem enormous, his chipped front tooth or his gleaming braces.  Action rushes on again until you stop to take in the detail that may save Jesse, a bully’s trailing, untied shoelaces or, say, a tree that can be an escape route for Jesse, an expert climber.

When you choose your details, pick carefully.  You want details that increase the tension or advance the action.  To increase the tension at the beginning, for example, a bully might go a few steps out of his way to kick a cat.  Or, while they’re beating Jesse, they’re talking about what a nice house he lives in or how pretty his sister is.  Yikes!

Jesse isn’t going to stop thinking during the fight, and you shouldn’t stop reporting his thoughts, but they’re likely to be stripped-down thoughts, limited mostly to the immediate situation.  He may think about where he can move, what the bullies are going to do next.  There may be other thoughts too, depending on the situation.  If Jesse has something in his backpack that’s precious to him, he may think about how to protect it.  He may even give away his thoughts and further endanger the thing.  Or maybe he had a conversation with his aunt that morning, and she urged him to make friends at school.  During the fight he may fleetingly and ironically remember her advice.

The only exception to this that I can think of is if something devastating happened to Jesse just before he’s ganged up on.  Let’s imagine the worst: his mother died, and he just got the news.  In that case, he may hardly notice the bullies, may not care that he’s being beaten.

As for feelings, the reader needs them, wants to experience Jesse’s fear, his desperation, his churning stomach, icy feet, shallow breath.  Again, stripped down.  If Jesse deliberately breathes deep, remembering his brief martial arts training, that’s okay.  But we don’t want a digression to a martial-arts lecture.

In fact, we want no long thoughts, elaborate feelings, certainly no flashbacks – because they suck the tension out of the scene.  When I read an exciting part in a book, my reading speeds up.  If the author throws in complications I may miss them, and if I have to slow down for a detour, I may just jump ahead.  In an action scene, I’m thrilled.  I want to be on a roller coaster with nothing to interrupt the wild ride.

Two prompts:

•    Tighten an action scene you’ve already written.  Take out anything extraneous.  If you need to, add thoughts, feelings, sensations that heighten the tension.  Try shortening your sentences.  Paragraphs too.  Then put the revision aside for a day.  The next day go back to it and tighten even more.

•    Write about Jesse.  You can change his name, his sex, his age, whatever you like, but have him attacked by three bullies and make the setting an amusement park or a playground.

Have fun, and save what you write!

In good voice

Before I get to today’s post, I want to tell you that the website is close to going live.  Thanks for all your suggestions!

When I mentioned that I would move the blog over to the website, two of you expressed concern about leaving Blogspot, which is what I will do, probably not instantly but soon.  I’d hate to lose anybody or stop hearing from any of you, so I want to assure you that there won’t be a change in the level of safety.  The host will be invisible, as Blogspot is, and it will be a big company too, with a long history of hosting websites and blogs.

Also, I have a couple of events coming up for my new picture book, Betsy Red Hoodie, which will be out on September 14th.  By events, I mean I’ll read from the book, maybe the entire book, answer questions, and sign.  Here are the events:

September 21st at 4:30 PM, Bank Street Books, 2879 Broadway (near 114th Street) in Manhattan, (212) 678-1654.    

October 9th at 2:00 PM, Ulster Plaza Barnes & Noble, 1177 Ulster Avenue, Kingston, NY, (845) 336-0590.

As I always do at an event I’ll ask if anyone is there because of the blog, and I’ll tell the unaware about it.

By the way, I love that this has become a place for sharing writing ideas and support.  I don’t always weigh in, but I always read and enjoy.   

On April 29, 2010, Debz wrote, I’ve been having some trouble with voice in my story. Like for one paragraph in my story it’s told perfectly, and sounds just right, but then the next paragraph, the voice changes and sounds all wrong for the story, and no matter how much I edit it, nothing seems right.
And on May 6, 2010, F wrote, Ms. Levine – I was thinking today, about how they say that you should write, write and write until you find your ‘voice’ and style of writing (And coincidentally how yours always has that ‘fairytale’ feel to it). Whenever I think upon this topic, I’ve always mused idly that my voice is sure to differ from book to book. Coincidentally, I came upon a similar topic on the net, where someone had mentioned authors whose voices have differed from series to series, leading to their readers not recognizing them.
    What are your thoughts on the matter? Is it important for an author to write in a consistent voice? Or is it all right to differ from book to book?

Chapter 15 in Writing Magic is called “Voice” and is about voice.  I just reread it and was mighty pleased!  So you may find it helpful to take a look.  Here is the first paragraph, which defines this slithery, tricky concept:

        Everything written has a voice, from advertisements to warning notices.  “Trespassing prohibited” is written in a different voice from “Stay out!  That means you!”

And a few paragraphs later:

        Suppose I’d just written “Voice is ubiquitous” instead of “Voice is everywhere”.  The meaning is the same.  I’ve changed only one word.  But the voice is a little different, isn’t it?
Editors, when asked what they look for in a manuscript, sometimes say “Voice” and then can’t explain what they mean.  Miss Red Pencil, a hypothetical editor, says she knows voice when she sees it.  She’s being honest but not helpful, and her response makes voice seem scary.  If it can’t be defined, how will I know if I have it?  How can I go after it, work diligently, and get it?

Voice is an amalgam of many elements: word choice, vocabulary, sentence structure, kind of sentence, sentences combined together, mood, point of view, even tense.  So let me go through them one by one.

Or start with two, because I’m not sure if word choice and vocabulary are the same.  Vocabulary level is obvious.  Does the voice in question run in a sesquipedalian direction?  Meaning, does the writer use a lot of big words?  But word choice is more than vocabulary.  Words have tone.  My late, much missed friend Nedda was once asked by a native French speaker, “Which is more elegant, ‘maybe’ or ‘perhaps’?”  (Imagine the question asked with a charming French accent.)

Maybe and perhaps are synonyms, but we probably encounter perhaps more often on the page in narration and maybe more often in speech or in written dialogue.  The level of difficulty is roughly the same for both.  Possibly we learn maybe in first grade and perhaps in second.  But the tone isn’t the same.  Perhaps is a tad more formal.

rage – fury
argument – dispute
antediluvian – ancient
huge – gargantuan – ginormous – massive

In the word sets above, one word can often replace another.  Think about which you’re drawn to.  Do you like rage better than fury?  Or vice versa?  I think they’re equal, but one might seem angrier to you than the other, or you might prefer the long u in fury.  Of course, rage is a verb as well as a noun, but consider both in their noun forms.  Maybe you’d use one in a particular place, the other in a different situation.  Or you might alternate them so you’re not repeating words, if you’re writing something with a lot of hostility in it.

Consider all the word sets, and when you choose words, be aware of your choices.  Notice words in other writers’ work that they use and you never do.

Sentence structure.  I’m thinking here of simple sentences – a subject, verb, maybe a direct object, and that’s it – compared to medium complex ones – a statement but and an opposing statement, or two simple statements joined by and – compared to really complex sentences with many dependent clauses, possibly a parenthesis or two and a statement between dashes (kind of like this sentence).  Some writers are given to sentences that take up half a page.  My sentences are usually straightforward.  In Ever in particular they’re very short.

Kind of sentence.  Do you use questions a lot, as I do?  Or exclamations?  Or mostly sentences that end with a period.

Combos.  Are you mixing up your kinds of sentences: long after short, statement after a question?  This is worth being aware of.  Most of the time you don’t want sameness to creep in, because sameness is often dullness.

Mood.  Is the feeling happy, somber, funny, sarcastic, straightforward and unemotional?

Point of view.  For example, if you’re writing from the first-person POV of a twelve-year-old boy, the voice will be different from the voice of the same character looking back forty years at his twelve-year-old self.  And so on.  This will come naturally in the writing.

Tense.  Are you writing in the past or present tense?  The two feel different.  I wrote Ever in present tense, because past would have suggested something about the book’s outcome.  Present tense sometimes gives a book a feeling of immediacy, as if events are happening this week.

Debz, you can analyze your voice according to all these elements and change it.  Experiment!  Alter sentence length, word choice, and so on.  Fool around even with the paragraph that seems right.  Maybe if you revise it, the rest will fall into place.

Also, I hope you haven’t stopped writing until the segment is right.  You may wind up cutting this part.  Or something you write later may show you what you need to do.  The whole may guide the pieces.

F, I think it’s fine to change voices from book to book, and I don’t see it as a problem if a reader doesn’t recognize an author’s voice.  The reader is likely to be interested in the variation.  My fairytale voice in some of my books is absent from others.  Ever isn’t precisely written fairytale style.  Dave at Night certainly isn’t, and neither is The Wish or Writing Magic or the blog.

Taste varies when it comes to voice.  I don’t tolerate extra words well, but some people may not mind.  If you like spare, graceful prose, William Strunk, Jr. & E.B. White’s The Elements of Style is worth reading.  Let me change that, it’s a book you should read if you haven’t already.  If you’re in high school heading for college, you may need it when you get there.

Last of all, there’s muddled voice, which accompanies errors in grammar, usage, spelling, punctuation.  A reader can’t sort out the voice from the mistakes.  Becoming best friends with a book of English usage will help.  I’ve recommended Patricia T. O’Conner’s Woe Is I before, and this is a fine occasion to recommend it again.

The prompt is to take a page from the beginning of one of your stories, the beginning because that’s where voice is established.  Rewrite the page three or four or more times, trying different sentence lengths, different vocabulary.  Fool around.  This is only an experiment.  Try writing a paragraph entirely in exclamations.  Write another as if someone were screaming it, do you hear me?  Another as if all your characters were on a stage, exaggerating everything.

Have fun, and save what you write!