The Dreaded Mary Sue

Before all your comments and the links I read fade from my memory, I’m going to jump ahead to Kara’s question last week, How do you avoid writing Mary Sue’s?  Later, Kara also wrote, By “Mary Sue”, I mean a character that’s perfect in every single way.

F asked, And, adding to that – how do you make your character ‘human’? Imperfect, with flaws, etc. I mean, I really don’t want to just insert a flaw for the heck of it, but that’s what I’ve done. That, or made the MC similar to me…and that’s not good. Have you ever had that problem? The character being too similar to yourself?  Further on, F added, It’s the author basically writing herself/himself into the role, or rather, a glorified version of themselves. I’m scared that most of my characters are just extensions of various parts of me that I wrote unconsciously, and I don’t want that! I want original, UNRELATABLE characters.

And later on Rose wrote, …I’m also interested in a “how to” on making characters relatable-to.

I had the uncomfortable feeling as I read the definitions that Ella of Ella Enchanted might be a Mary Sue.  She’s beautiful and everybody who’s good loves her.  Some people have a talent for picking up languages, but Ella is almost magical at it.

Then there’s Aza in Fairest.  Although she’s ugly she can out-sing Maria Callas.

For Ella Enchanted more than any of my other books I drew on books I’d loved, and I suppose some of them had main characters with Mary Sue qualities.  For example, Anne, the heroine of Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery, which I reread a thousand times when I was little, has a tragic back story.  People are constantly finding something special in her, particularly when they look in her enormous green eyes.  And, as she grows older, she becomes stunningly gorgeous.  Put this way, she seems a total Mary Sue.  But Anne is engaging.  As a child she talks too much and uses ridiculously big words.  She has a temper, holds a grudge, and is immovably stubborn.

If you’re writing a sympathetic main character it may be impossible to avoid all Mary Sue or Gary Stu-ishness.  For instance, if Warren is likable, other characters are going to like him.  In fact, you may have to show him being liked to convince the reader that he is appealing.  However, some may not take to him, and here is a chance to avoid the Gary Stu.  You can make a person who doesn’t like him sympathetic too, thus showing that not everybody who fails to fall for Warren is rotten.

As for beauty, perfection is probably not as attractive as mild imperfection.  Your main character can have a weak chin or over-sized ears.  When I wrote Aza I made her physically unattractive but I didn’t give her terrible weeping eczema or brown and crooked teeth, which might make the reader recoil rather than slip inside her. 

Oops!  My advice is sounding formulaic, so I’ll mention a memoir I read some years ago called Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy (high school and up).  The author had a kind of cancer as a child that eroded her jaw.  She writes about her reconstructive surgery, the degeneration of the surgery, her feelings about being disturbing to look at.  The narrator’s voice is engaging.  I was certainly on her side on the page, but I was forced to wonder how I would respond to her in person.  I recommend this book.  The writing is excellent and there’s lots to think about.

If I remember right, some of the power of Autobiography of a Face comes from the author’s suffering.  An ingredient in the Mary Sue problem may be loving a main character too much to let her get hurt.  We know Mary Sue has to be challenged or there will be no story, so we make something bad happen.  But because we don’t want her to feel pain, we give her an ability that enables her to overcome the misfortune, or we bring in some other plot development to mitigate her misery.  Then we recognize that the bad thing fell flat.  We escalate the next difficulty and make what ensues dreadful in an oversized way.  Afterward, we have to save her again, which lands us in a cycle of rising misery that may even become comical.

Scaling back is probably the answer.  Say Don is actually a superhero.  He’s inhumanly strong.  This is okay if he’s also shy.  Or impulsive.  Suppose he’s not good at sizing up situations and keeps rescuing people who are doing fine, and suppose some of these people are friends or schoolmates.  Resist the impulse to make him so adorable they immediately forget he crashed through a window to save them from a tiger that actually was a dog.  Let one of them tell him an unpleasant truth about himself.  He may be strong and kindhearted, but he’s also a busybody.  Let him feel hurt, and let the hurt linger.  Let him not learn from it immediately.  Have him repeat the same mistake a few times.

The small things make a reader identify.  Imagine that Valerie’s mission is to achieve world peace and she actually succeeds.  The reader will share her triumph only if he sees the failures that precede success.  Show her fussing over the conference room before the big meeting and yelling at an assistant.  One of the world leaders is a chain smoker.  Valerie thinks smoking is a vile habit.  She takes the ashtray out of the conference room then brings it back and repeats this a couple of times.  She carries in a fan, then worries the fan will offend the smoker.  She places his chair at a distance from everyone else’s and worries again.  The reader fears that a cigarette and Valerie’s attitude may cause World War III, and he invests in the outcome.  His caring comes partly from the big ideas, the important goal, but largely from the tiny moments.

As for characters who are too much like you – I don’t see this as a problem.  You should mine yourself for character traits, in my opinion, not an idealized you but the real one.  And don’t let modesty make you worse than you really are, either.  You are the person you know best, the one you experience directly.  Why eliminate your most available source?  Ask yourself what makes you likable and what gets you into trouble.  It doesn’t matter if others disagree with your assessment.  You’re looking for material, not an accurate psychological profile.

Wilma in The Wish is more like me than any of my other main characters, particularly in her need to be liked.  Near the end she pretty much begs three popular girls to like her.  All my characters when they’re funny have my sense of humor.  How could I write humor that wasn’t my own?  Or any emotion, now that I think of it.

And as for entirely original characters, I don’t think they’re possible.  It’s like when I used to paint I’d sometimes wish for a new color.  Some birds can see a color we can’t, and aliens may think in ways that are entirely foreign, but if they’re entirely foreign no human writer can write them.

However, we can write characters that surprise the reader.  Suppose Merry Lou’s train has hit another train.  She’s trapped in a sleeper compartment with another passenger who’s severely injured.  Alas, she doesn’t have superhuman strength and the sight of blood makes her queasy.  What can she do?

Naturally, I would start by making a list.  I’d also think about what’s available to her in the compartment and within reach outside the train window.  I’d wonder how I might respond in such an emergency and how people I know might respond.  As I considered the scene I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that Mary Sue may fail or may only partially succeed.  She may be totally useless in this crisis.  The passenger may die and then she’ll have to deal with that.  Afterward, another passenger can ask her why the heck she didn’t use her cell phone, and she can realize she forgot she had it.  Or maybe she has an iPhone and surfs the net for first-aid tips, wasting precious minutes while the passenger loses consciousness.  Or maybe she pulls off a rescue at the last moment.

Young adult writer Kimberly Willis Holt is a master at characterization.  I particularly remember When Zachary Beaver Came to Town (middle school and up), which is well worth reading and studying.  Wicked (high school and up) by Gregory Maguire shakes and rattles with surprising characters.  In Doodlebug (upper elementary and up)  by Karen Romano Young, which just came out, the main character Doreen is a delight –  fresh, unique – and the reader fuses with her.  Some of the fusion comes from the drawings but more comes from the level of intimacy the author draws us into.  This is another one to study.

Also, I suggest you read outside your comfort zone occasionally.  I confess that I don’t seek out even good books I’m not likely to enjoy, but sometimes I have to read them, and often they help my writing.

Wow, this has been a long post!  Try the situation above, Merry Lou stuck in a train, as a prompt, and here’s another one:

This time Merry Lou has gotten into warrior school, scoring higher on her entrance exam than any other candidate in the school’s history.  She’s gorgeous.  Everybody loves her.  She can read thoughts.  Her reflexes are faster than Superman’s.  Now make her go to her first class and do everything wrong and totally embarrass herself.

Have fun and save what you write!

Like me, like me not

April 29, 2010 Gray wrote, I’m writing a medieval fantasy story with a large cast. I have this fear of making my main characters unlikable and completely outshined by my supporting characters.  I’ve found this restricts me from creating lots of lovable characters that suck a reader into the story.  How do you balance your characters’ “lovableness?”

Sounds like the problem may mostly be making your main characters lovable, a problem I share.  According to my editors’ comments after reading the manuscripts of all three of these, Fairest, Ever, and Fairies and the Quest for Never Land, I failed to create sympathetic heroines .  Before I revised, I asked the editors to point out the places where the characters seemed unappealing because I couldn’t tell.

I vaguely remember what the difficulty was in Ever, and it went something like this: Kezi believes she has only a month to live.  She brought her impending death down on herself by an act of extraordinary kindness, a perfect case of the expression, Let no good deed go unpunished.  Olus loves her and wants to help her.  She appreciates this, but she doesn’t know him well and she’s a tad angry, a little absorbed in her approaching demise.  When she gets mad at him it’s because he’s the only person around.  I expected this to be clear, but it wasn’t.  The editor found her ungrateful, so in revision I softened her.  The book works now and didn’t work then, and I always wanted the reader to love Kezi, but I may have sacrificed a little complexity.

In Fairies and the Quest for Never Land, Gwendolyn, my main character, is living with the fairies.  If something bad happened to a fairy, she thought about the consequences for herself rather than about the poor fairy.  I did this without realizing because the consequences for Gwendolyn were going to move the story forward, but, alas, she came off as selfish.

You might want to keep these two questions in mind as you write your main character:  Are his feelings understandable?  Is he reacting in a caring way to others?

It’s a balancing act, as writing so often is.  We’re in our main characters’ heads more than we’re in the minds of lesser characters, even if we’re writing in omniscient third person.  We don’t want a paragon for a main, or the reader won’t identify.  And we don’t want a main whose interior monologue is mean, or the reader won’t identify.  We can’t really reflect life, because if a mind-reading device were ever invented, most people would be unsympathetic, at least sometimes.  I certainly have unacceptable thoughts and feelings on occasion that I keep to myself.

So how to achieve likability?

If Holly, your main character, is thinking mean thoughts you may want to make her aware of this and self-critical.  I hate men who wear tee shirts with suit jackets, Holly thinks.  It’s so pretentious.  The reader begins to dislike her until her next thought, which is, How can I hate a whole class of people without knowing them?  The reader starts forgiving her.

Or Holly can think something horrible and do something nice.  She hates these tee-shirt-jacket guys, but when one of them asks her for directions, she helps him to his destination, going way out of her way to do so.  The reader notices.

Your main character can be grateful when life is going well, even temporarily.  Holly appreciates.  The air smells like earth after rain.  The sunset is the color of her favorite scarf.  She thinks how lucky she is.  The reader is happy to be in her company.  She doesn’t think, I suppose this is just the beginning of another drought.  Good things never last, and a sunset that beautiful means something bad is about to happen.  Ugh!  Let me out of this character’s head.

You can think of real people you like and what you like about them and insert their qualities into your main characters.   Alice is completely dependable.  Zelda thinks the best of everyone.  Barry has the most astonishing insights.  And so on.  There are many ways for people and characters to please us.

It may be more difficult to show your main’s good sides than a secondary character’s.  For example, if Holly tells Barry about a problem and he gets it instantly and shows it to Holly in a new way, she can think, How perceptive he is, and the reader will like Barry better – and Holly for noticing.  But she can’t advise Barry about his problem and then think, How perceptive I am, without coming off as boastful and unlikable.

Not that a main character always has to be likable.  For example, the main character, Titus, in M. T. Anderson’s young-adult novel Feed (middle school and up, I’d guess) is not likable, not to me anyway.  I pitied him, felt for his limited life, and wished futilely that his world would change – and couldn’t put the book down.  He’s not even interesting; he’s utterly shallow, which may be the point of the book.  In this terrible world, no one can rise above circumstance to develop depth.

The characters in Christopher Buckley’s Thank You for Smoking (high school and up) are not admirable, but I laughed my way to the end.  And is Hamlet likable?  I’m not sure.  He’s terrible to Ophelia and also to her father, Polonius, and yet we feel for him.  Few people walk out in the middle of the play.

As for secondary characters, go ahead and make them lovable, as many as you like, in my opinion.  You may need bad characters for tension, but you can still populate your pages with charmers.  In Ella Enchanted, Mandy is a delight, and her delightfulness doesn’t lessen Ella’s appeal.  Adorable secondary characters may even help your main be more adorable himself.  In life we sometimes judge people by their friends.  I’ve doubted people who seemed nice but whose friends made me uncomfortable.  You may have had the same experience.  And I may trust someone more if I like her friends.  Besides, it can be enjoyable to travel through a book in pleasant company – not always possible; it depends on the story.

Here are three prompts:

•    Your main character Yvette is popular.  She’s with several of her friends at a school function.  An odd, unpopular boy is there, too, and Yvette goes out of her way to be cruel to him.  Write the scene and make Yvette sympathetic even while she’s behaving badly.

•    Four friends are hiking together.  Make each one likable in a different way.

•    Same friends, same hike.  They run out of trail mix.  One sprains an ankle.  Rain starts to fall.  Camp is still three miles off.  Make them all deteriorate into annoying people.  Create a crisis and bring them back to likable.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Brain Jumping

On April 25, 2010, Mya wrote, do you change viewpoints in a story without making it confusing? I know you did it in Ever, and I have a story that goes the same way, but it’s not working out.

In Writing Magic I define the various points of view (POV), and there are many other sources as well.  Also, my post of October 21st, 2009, is related to this one.

When I wrote the first draft of Ever I wrote it in third-person omniscient.  The effect, alas, was that the reader couldn’t feel close to anyone.  Third-person omniscient doesn’t have to work out that way; I just couldn’t get it right in this case.  Then I tried first person from Kezi’s POV, put she isn’t present for many plot developments.  If I’d stuck with just her, the reader would have been unaware of them either, which led me to the alternating narration.

If you and I enter the same party or walk into the same store or even examine the same pair of slacks, our attention will be drawn to different things.  With the slacks, you may be looking for quality; I may be a complete sucker for black-and-white checks (actually, I am) and not care about anything else.

Same with characters.  When you switch from one first-person POV to another, you take on the world view of each character.  If Willis is a cynic examining slacks, he may be looking for quality, but he’ll be expecting to find a flaw.  When you switch over to Allie, who’s easily pleased, she falls in love with seven pairs of slacks in seven seconds.  In writing the scene, you need to reflect their different thoughts and feelings in their separate narrations.

Their voices on the page need to differ too.  In Ever, the male character, Olus, is educated, and Kezi doesn’t know how to read.  The vocabulary in his chapters is harder, because he knows more words.

In the example of Willis and Allie, here’s Willis:  I turn the pants inside out, frowning, then erase the frown because Allie is watching and she likes to tease me, but it’s an effort to keep my forehead flat.  No lining, naturally.  What do you expect for eighty-nine dollars?  Especially when the sweat-shop laborer probably earned eighty-nine cents, if she was lucky.

This could be Allie: Wow!  I love this store.  Listen to the music!  Great beat.  Slacks, slacks, slacks.  OMG.  It’s Slacks City in here.  The buyer must be a genius.

You have vocabulary, sentence structure, emotional reactions, and thought content as your tools for creating distinctive voices.  And maybe more elements I haven’t thought of.  Please weigh in with comments.

An interesting example of multiple POVs is Bat 6 by Virginia Euwer Wolff, which is about a girl’s baseball team, and there are twenty-one – count them! – first-person POV characters.  It’s a fascinating book that can be read by middle-grade readers and up.  The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver is a tour de force of multiple POVs.  I read enough to know what an accomplishment it is, but I didn’t stick with it.  This one would be for high school and above.

If you read these books, notice the devices the authors use to create unique voices.  I remember from The Poisonwood Bible that one of the main characters is a master of palindromes.  How original!

Shifting POV makes storytelling more complicated.  Possibly my biggest problem as a writer is that I tend to over-complicate.  I’m always spinning ideas on top of other ideas, and the task of getting through a book becomes much harder.  Of course, layered, complex stories are good.  So can be simple, direct ones.  I’m thinking of The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway and Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, both for high-school level and above.  The point is that you should consider your reasons for multiple viewpoints. 

Here are some occasions when it may be worth the work.  These are just what I can think of.  I’d welcome more ideas.

1.    It’s fine and brave to try something new.  If you’ve never written from more than one point of view and you want to see how it goes, that’s an excellent reason all by itself.

2.    You can’t tell your story in the first person because your main character isn’t present for extended events that the reader needs to know about.  I say extended because short events can be communicated by phone, email, text messages, even a magic book, as I used in Ella Enchanted.

3.    Your story belongs to two or more characters more or less equally, and you don’t want to jump within a scene from one character’s head to another, which is what you’d have to do if you wrote in omniscient third person.

4.    Your main characters are distant from one another in time or place or culture.

5.    Your main character is an unreliable narrator, and you want another voice for balance and objectivity.

6.    Truth is elusive in your story.  You want the reader to piece it together by combining points of view.  This approach is probably too sophisticated for any but young adult (and adult) readers.

7.    Again, truth is elusive.  You are going to go over the same events repeatedly from multiple points of view.  Your reader will figure out what really happened.  This also may be only for older readers.  The classic Japanese movie Rashomon (high school and above again) is a mystery told this way.

In numbers two through four above, you might also write in omniscient third person, a perspective I love and find difficult to pull off.  An omniscient narrator provides a consistent voice, but this POV can distance you and the reader from your main characters, since the narrator is on the outside.  Or a cacophony of thoughts and feelings can slow your story down to a glacial pace.

Here are two prompts:

•    Dream up five characters on an urban commuter train.  Write a page from the POV of each of them.  Reveal why they’re on the train, what’s awaiting them at the end, the issue that’s uppermost in their minds.  Some calamity happens: the train hits a tree or runs somebody over or a passenger becomes ill – whatever.  Write what ensues from the POV of each of them, a page for each.  You can either advance the story with each shift of POV or retell the same events.  If you need to, go back and revise any of your first pages to fit what follows.

•    Tell a story from the points of view of the pets in a household, more than one species.  How would a dog think?  A cat?  A fish?  Turtle?  Parrot?  There is a long tradition of storytelling through animal voices.  One of my favorites when I was little was Black Beauty, which I reread not too long ago and still enjoyed.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Death and Dying

On April 16, 2010, Ezmirelda wrote, How do you kill a character you’ve become attached to? If the plot needs for a certain character to die how do you do it? Have you ever done it before?

I’ve killed characters, but not many.  The mother dies early on in Ella Enchanted and in The Princess Test, and Dave’s father dies at the beginning of Dave at Night.  A few characters bite the dust in The Two Princesses of Bamarre, but I won’t say which ones for those who haven’t read the book.  I’ve even knocked off a few fairies, tra la, in the Disney Fairies series.

Getting very serious – briefly – people I love have died, real people.  I’m sure many of you have lost loved ones too.  My father died when I was thirty-eight, my mother when I was thirty-nine.  Their deaths were a long time ago; I’m sixty-two now.  But I still miss them and think of them often.  A situation arises, and I imagine what my father would make of it.  In a group of people, it often seems to me I’m observing through my mother’s eyes.  Sometimes I picture their astonishment at the technological miracles that have come along since their deaths.  The frustration of course is that I can guess what they might say and do; I make them characters in my internal narrative, but I can never be sure if I’m correct.  Their absence in flesh and blood will remain sad forever.

If you’re feeling pain at the prospect of killing a character you love, I hope you’ll take comfort.  When characters die, they’re not fully dead.  I – or you – can bring the dead back to life in imagination.  I can make up a new flashback or write out future scenes as if the character hadn’t died.  Take Ella’s mother, for example, I could write her first meeting with Ella’s father, Sir Peter.  Maybe she’s heard rumors about him.  People say he’s dangerous, so she’s curious.  Before the ball where he is to be, she dresses with particular care, to Mandy’s dismay.  They dance, and she finds the courage to flirt.  She tells him about her day, her family, secrets she’s kept for years.  His eyes never leave her face.  He smiles and compliments her.  She hasn’t lost her sense of humor, so she tells herself that this is ridiculous and happening too quickly.  Alarms are going off, but she’s taken in anyway.  If I like, I can write what she says and how he answers.

Or I can jump ahead and bring the mother back for Ella’s wedding.  The reader can see her joy at her daughter happiness.  And so on.

You honor your beloved dead character by making the reader love him too.  Don’t hold back on giving him qualities you adore, and go easy on the faults.  In Dave at Night, I made Dave’s father pretty saintly, so the reader would feel Dave’s grief.  You can make the character’s faults endearing ones.  Even a villain can be lovable if you make the reader understand the villainy and see where it comes from.  It is fine to do in a character for plot reasons, but make the death resonate if this is an important character.  What we don’t want to do is rush the death to reduce our own pain.  Death is an occasion for wallowing.

You can soothe your pain by keeping the dead character in the reader’s memory.  I hate when an author forgets to do this.  The character dies; the story is sad for ten pages, and then the character is hardly mentioned again.  The consequence is that the living characters who appear to have forgotten the dead one come off as unfeeling.  I’ve seen this in thrillers.  In the first chapter the hero’s wife is killed.  He sets off to avenge her death, which is the whole reason for the book, but the adventure takes over and he stops thinking of her.  And I think, How crummy is this!  If you go the other way and have the character remembered, whoever is doing the remembering becomes more sympathetic, generally a benefit.

The treatment of a character’s death is masterful in A Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson.  I read it a long time ago, so I just read a plot summary and almost cried.  If you haven’t read the book, it is marvelous.

Guilt often accompanies death.  For example, the sole survivor of a car crash is likely to be burdened with guilt, even if he wasn’t driving.  He may play out in his mind many scenarios that don’t end in an accident.  If I’d done this, said that, he may think, we wouldn’t even have gotten in the car.  If I hadn’t turned on the radio…  If I had stopped her from answering her cell phone…  When you build in guilt, you make the death more believable.

I’ve been a little prescriptive in saying how to treat a death.  Each story is different, and you may need to handle it differently.  You may have a main character who can’t deal with sadness and deliberately buries the feelings.  Disconnection from feeling may keep the dead character in mind as effectively as wallowing.  Oh, we think as we read, he’s being callous because he’s in pain.  Why pain?  Oh, yes, because Juliette died.

Or you may find another approach that works.

Another option, naturally, is not to kill off the character.  You may be able to get rid of him without an actual death.  Sometimes a character has to die.  You feel it as you’re writing.  But sometimes there are other options.  He can move away.  He and your main character can argue irreconcilably and separate forever.  He can live, but he’s in a coma and no one knows if he’ll ever recover.  It’s worth thinking about why you want to kill him and why you’re hesitating.  If you let him live, you can bring him back into the story later on.

Ever, my Mesopotamian fantasy, could have been a tragedy.  Initially, I thought it would be, but I couldn’t go that way, so I steered the story in another direction.  Tragedy was too bleak for my temperament.  Someday this may change.

As for how my characters have died, I’ve used disease, incineration, a fall, disbelief (in the case of one of the Never fairies), battle, even overeating, and maybe I’m leaving out a few.  No murder and no humans killing humans even in battle.  In fact, I haven’t staged any battles between peoples, only people against monsters.  So far I haven’t had the stomach for it, but that may change, too.

I haven’t treated any of the deaths clinically, but there are resources that can help you get inside dying.  For one of my books, won’t say which, I needed to know about poisons and their effects, and I found plenty online.  Just now I googled “how to write a death scene,” and many entries popped up.  I also found a book series called Howdunit, which is for mystery writers but which would probably have other writing uses.

Here are three deadly prompts:

•    Your main character’s best friend died of a rare cancer a year ago.  Write notes about the impact this might be having on her.  Write a scene showing these effects.  Write a session between her and a grief counselor.

•    Think about killing off a character in a story you’re working on.  Consider which character might die and what the consequences would be for your story.  Write notes about this.  Write the death scene.  (You don’t have to really use it.)

•    This may not be to everyone’s taste – this entire post may not be – but for the lighter side of death, write from the vantage point of a happy arch villain who is joyously plotting a murder.  Get inside her, the more gruesome you can be, the better.  Make the character she is planning to kill a great humanitarian whose death will be an enormous loss for all mankind.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Cover Musings

On April 14, 2010, April wrote, On another topic, your aside about how a book cover can make or break a book really intrigues me. Do you have more to say on that topic that could be made into a post? I’d love to hear your opinions about it.

Warning:  This post is a departure, not about writing at all, just covers.

Many of my book covers – Ella Enchanted, The Wish, the latest Dave at Night, Two Princesses of Bamarre, Fairest, Ever – were created through photographs.  There was a photo shoot of the girl or, in the case of Two Princesses, girls.  The artist works from the photograph and paints in the background, possibly also from photographs – I don’t know.  In the last few years, my editor at HarperCollins has been emailing me photos of models, and I’ve had a say about which of a small selection of pretty girls will represent my book.  Back to Two Princesses again: my editor sent me photographs and I chose an Addie and a Meryl and then neither model was available, and the artist used two different young women.

The hard cover of Dave at Night was illustrated by Loren Long.  I love it so much that I bought the original art, which now hangs in my living room.  The cover reminds me of the work of early twentieth century painter Thomas Hart Benton.

An interesting tidbit is that initially Loren Long showed a waiter balancing a bottle of some kind of alcohol on a tray.  The people at HarperCollins felt that liquor wasn’t appropriate on a children’s book cover, so Loren Long replaced the bottle with a goblet and a glass.

A new artist was hired for the paperback.  I like that cover too, and it’s effective because Dave takes center stage.  It’s probably a more kid friendly cover, whereas the hard cover appeals to grown-ups.  The logic may have been that adults buy hard cover books, but children may buy a paperback.  Since then, HarperCollins has had a second paperback cover created.

Publishers commission new covers to breathe fresh life into a book that’s been out for a while.  That’s why many of my books have more than one cover.  A few years ago HarperCollins began putting what looks like a gold-leaf band across the top of my novels and the title in gold lettering.  This is a form of branding.  My books become identifiable at a glance.

Picture book covers are created by the illustrator, of course.  I adore the covers of my Betsy Who Cried Wolf and the soon-to-be-released Betsy Red Hoodie.  My Disney Fairies books are illustrated novels with illustrated covers, and the illustrator, David Christiana, is a master.

Lately I’ve been reading complaints by readers that the girl on the cover of this or that novel of mine doesn’t look like the girl I describe.  In Ever, for example, I say Kezi has an olive nose, meaning it’s a little droopy and a little bulbous at the end.   The artist may not have been able to find a pretty model with this kind of nose, or may not have looked.  The chosen model is lovely and vaguely Mediterranean looking.

My complaint about Ella Enchanted is that every time there’s a new cover, Ella’s hair gets lighter.  But I haven’t said so to my publisher.  I wish the cover of Two Princesses of Bamarre showed the dragon Vollys more prominently, but the covers of both books are fine.  Their purpose is to sell books.  My books are – from a marketing standpoint – targeted to girls, eight and up.  The covers show pretty young women, and potential readers presumably (on a subconscious level) want what these beauties seem to have.  Ooh, this sounds crass!

Then, however, if the cover is successful, the girl reads the book and the story takes over.  With luck, it’s a good book.

Take my novel Fairest.  Aza, the Snow White character, is homely at the very least, except for a brief part of the story when she’s beautiful.  If the cover art showed her when she was most unappealing, the book itself would likely have had little appeal.  The cover is clever; she seems beautiful, but most of her face is behind a hand mirror.

I hate when a cover hurts a good book’s chances.  It won’t be read if a child or parent doesn’t want to pick it up.  The Moorchild by Eloise McGraw, which won a Newbery honor, started its life with an unattractive cover, in my opinion, which was then replaced by another bad one, although the third and latest cover looks excellent to me.  I can’t say who’s to blame for the first two; they may have been just what the author wanted.  I love The Moorchild, but it seems not to be well known, which I blame on the first two covers.  You can see the newest one online at Amazon and Barnes & Noble and one of the early ones on Amazon and the other on Barnes & Noble.  I think it’s interesting to look, and you may not agree with me.  After you look I recommend that you read.

A strange cover fad swept through publishing a few years ago.  Somebody got the idea that a cover should feature incomplete people.  One of the covers for my novel The Wish was caught up in the craze, and this particular cover shows a quarter of the main character’s face.  But the moon is very full and very big.

At the beginning of an author’s career she may have little say about cover art.  I’m still not brought in on cover-art discussions, but on the few occasions when I’ve been very unhappy with a cover, HarperCollins has changed it.  For example, the proposed cover of Writing Magic seemed wrong to me.  I thought it made the book appear to be about magic spells rather than about writing.  HarperCollins changed the cover, and now I think it’s perfect.  Of course I had a reason for my opinion.  I didn’t simply say I didn’t like it.

This is just a mini-prompt: Look at the kids’ books on your bookshelf.  How do the covers affect you?  Do they draw you in?  Do you remember your reaction when you saw them for the first time?  Look at new covers in bookstores.  Do you see trends?  What makes you want to pick up a book?  If you can, find out the reaction of someone much older or much younger than you are.  An eight-year old may respond differently than a sixteen-year old to the same book jacket.  Have fun!

Story Hopping

On April 9, 2010, maybeawriter wrote, …what should you do if you have too many ideas, and can’t seem to finish any?

And on July 7, 2010, Alex wrote, My brain runs a lot faster than my hands can type (think race car to horse-and-buggy), and I often change my ideas as I write. I become bored with one idea, get another one, start work on that, and then become bored with the new one. In other words, nothing ever gets done and I have folders overflowing with unfinished work and abandoned stories. I can’t remain true to an idea or story for long, and it’s so annoying! Is there a way to make myself keep working on a story, and stop losing interest in it?

This isn’t one of my problems, but I have a few theories about what may be going on.

You may not have written enough stories to have found one you want to stick with, or you may not have developed the skill to keep yourself happy with a story you’ve started.  The story may not yet live satisfactorily on the page.  I mean satisfactorily for you, no one else.  The solution is to keep writing, new stories, old stories, abandoned stories that you’ve returned to and may abandon again.  You’ll get better and be able to carry a story further, maybe not the very next story, but gradually.

Or the difficulty may be self-criticism masquerading as too many ideas.  The story you’ve begun sours on you.  It’s not going the way you’d hoped.  You suppress the thought that  maybe you’re not much of a writer and leap into something new.  That suppressed doubt is there, though, and needs to be brought out into daylight and then slapped around.  Shut up! you have to tell it.  Story judgment day hasn’t arrived.  I’m just getting started.  I’m exploring this story, and I’m learning how to write (as every writer is, no matter how experienced).  Then soldier on with the original story.

It’s also possible that your story idea isn’t big enough to take you very far.  What interests you may be just one thing, and once you’ve written that, you’re done.  The story isn’t finished, but you don’t know where to go with it, so you hop onto something else. 

Think about whether that something else can fit into the story you dropped.  See if you can meld the two into a larger framework that will accommodate many new ideas.  Suppose, for example, you want to show how one of two sisters always has the upper hand in their relationship.  You write an argument between them, and you prove your point, but it’s just a scene, and you don’t know what to write next, and up pops an idea for a story about the last dinosaur.

Well, what if you put the two ideas next to each other?  One sister finds the dinosaur and the other gets involved somehow too.  You still have the sisters’ problem relationship, but now you also have a dinosaur to broaden the difficulty.  The dinosaur can have its own personality and may prefer one sister to another, for instance.  You’re tootling along with this until it peters out too, and a forest story beckons you.  Can you bring the sisters and the dinosaur into forest?  Maybe this seems like a rambling kind of story, and it may not work in the end, but you’ll still have a longer piece than you usually get.  Then again, it could develop.  Our minds are good at making connections.  While you’re writing the forest part, your subconscious will be putting pieces together.  It remembers a detail from the first scene – a promise the sisters made to each other at the end of their argument – that completes everything.  Or you may think of an even larger story idea to unite the threads.

Here’s another possibility: You’re happily writing when a new idea arrives.  The first story is going well, but the new idea is so shiny and thrilling that you can’t resist it.  If you keep a list of story ideas, as I do, you can jot the idea down including all its wonderful aspects in a paragraph or two, without writing the story itself.  Then return to your first story.  The itch and the tingle are likely to go away because the new idea is satisfied that it won’t be forgotten.  You can do the same thing with your next idea and your next.  The benefit is that you’ll have a long list of great ideas, plus a finished story.

Notes may help, as I’ve written a zillion times on the blog, notes about your new ideas (as I just suggested), about where your old story might go, about how bored you are and how frustrated.  I find complaining in notes enormously satisfying.  Also, in notes you can explore an idea before you start writing to see if you think it’s one you’ll want to stay with.  But don’t use notes to criticize your ideas or deep six them without giving any a spin.  Don’t let notes choke off your creativity.

This may help too:  Imagine an ideal reader who adores your work and can’t wait for the next installment of The Tale of the Lost Dinosaur or whatever.  As you write, think, She’s going to love this.  Concentrate on what she might enjoy next.  And if, in spite of everything, you drop the story, your perfect reader won’t criticize; she’ll simply be eager for your next effort.

Along similar lines, you can talk to a friend about a dying story and see if he has any thoughts that will breathe more life into it.  Sometimes a new perspective will show you your story’s potential.

You might try NANOWRIMO, National Novel Writing Month, link here:  You commit to writing a 50,000 word novel between November 1st and 30th.  It’s free, and the commitment might keep you going, plus the support of other participants.  If you succeed, it’s a tremendous accomplishment.  If you fail, you get much credit for trying.

I don’t think it ever works to chain yourself to a story you can’t summon any more interest in.  If you’ve reached that point, move on and don’t beat yourself up.

In the end, nothing matters if you keep writing, because eventually – but only if you keep writing – you’ll finish something.  I’m sure of it.  And meanwhile you’re living a writing life, that is, a thoughtful, creative existence loaded with deeper meaning.

To people reading the blog, if you’ve had this problem, please weigh in with how you solved it.  If you’re still going through it, you can commiserate with maybeawriter and Alex.

The prompt is to go back to an old story, at least a month old.  How does it look now?  Do you have a few fresh ideas?   Have you been working on something since that you can combine with it?  Write at least one new page.

You can also use my ideas about the sisters and the last dinosaur and the forest, or parts of them, as a story starter (the last thing someone with too many ideas needs!).  Have fun, and save what you write!

Candid Camera

Many thanks to everyone who made website suggestions.  So helpful!

On April 9, 2010, Le wrote, I have an idea for a fiction novel, but the inspiration for the story is from my own life. Some of the characters I want to put in the story will be similar, but not exactly like people I know. Have you ever done this? Have you used people you know as inspiration, and if so, have they noticed they are similar to your characters? Were they happy about this, or offended?

I plan to change the characters quite a lot, so really it is a fictional character from my imagination with just some basic similarities, but those who know me really well might be able to guess who I got my inspiration from. This makes me a little nervous to tell the story.

Also if you use real events from your life as a springboard to write a piece of fiction, will a person think it is really autobiographical? I guess this might just be a possibility you have to accept if you write fiction. People will think what they will, but only the author knows the truth.

There is nothing wrong with writing from your own life and basing characters on people you know.  Real people are a great way to get complicated, interesting characters almost instantly.  Using them is a legitimate shortcut, and autobiographical fiction is no less an act of creation than making everything up is.

My friend Joan Abelove’s two young adult novels, which I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, are both autobiographical.  Go and Come Back is about the time she spent as an anthropologist in the Peruvian jungle, and every amazing event is true, including what follows washing the turtle at the end.  Saying It Out Loud is about Joan’s senior year in high school when her mother developed a malignant brain tumor.  Joan changed a few things, made up the dialogue, but essentially she recreated two slices of her past on the page.  Both books are for teenagers and older.

Years ago, I contributed a story to a collection about grandmothers.  I wrote about this in less detail in my post on artistic freedom on March 24th of this year.  (That post has bearing on this one, so you may want to go back to it.)  The collection, called In My Grandmother’s House, is out of print, but if you’re interested, you may be able to request it from your library or buy it used online.  Most of the pieces are reminiscences, and the contributors may be some of your favorite authors, like Beverly Cleary, Diane Stanley, and Jean Craighead George, and you may want to know about their forebears, who were almost all delightful, loving, cookie-baking grandmas.  Joan also has a story in the book.

My contribution is fictional.  I imagined an evening at the apartment of my grandmother and my two aunts.  This is my mother’s family.  I had only one grandmother since my father was orphaned when he was little.  The evening could have happened.  Grandma’s gambling loss really did, only I didn’t remember it.  My sister remembered and told me.  I disliked my grandmother and my aunts, who were all mean to my mother.  Before I started writing I asked my editor if she wanted granny hatred in the book, and she said that would be terrific!

My aunts and grandmother were dead by then, also my parents, but my mother’s brother was still alive, and I didn’t want to hurt him, so I called him and told him about the project.  He was horrified that I thought he might interfere with my creativity (he died last summer, a lovely man), and he told me a few more family stories that did not show Grandma in a favorable light.

I didn’t ask for permission from his children, who’d had a better relationship with our grandmother than I’d had.  If they objected, they could write their own stories.  I went ahead.  Writing the tale was surprisingly moving, especially bringing my parents back to life.  Details flooded in (with help from my sister on the olfactory side), and I recreated our family in the early 1960s.

No one has ever complained.

The grandma story is the only strictly autobiographical fiction I’ve written, but Dave in my historical novel Dave at Night is based on my father’s childhood, and the character of Solly in that book came from my friend Nedda, who was alive.  I didn’t talk to her about it until long after, because Solly may be the most positive character in any of my books.  I didn’t see how Nedda could be insulted, and she wasn’t.

This is not to say that I’ve never gotten into trouble.  I named a main character in one of my books after a family member.  My intention was to honor her, but she didn’t feel honored and didn’t tell me.  I found out years later from someone else.  I named the fairy Rani in the Disney Fairies series after my sister, who gave me permission, but then she wasn’t happy about some of the shenanigans her namesake got into.

If you are combining characteristics of real people – Marianne’s generosity with Barry’s habit of never covering his mouth when he yawns with Pam’s inability to apologize – you are on entirely safe ground.  Or suppose you rename your friend Vince, call him Samuel and turn him into a character, keeping everything about him the same except for the physical description.  Once you throw him into new situations, you are on safe ground.  As soon as he acts in circumstances that you’ve invented, he becomes your creation, Samuel, no longer Vince.  Vince wouldn’t do just what you have Samuel do; he certainly wouldn’t say exactly the words you give Samuel.

If you are afraid of hurting feelings, you can discuss what you’re planning with the people involved.  You won’t know their reactions until they react.  One person may be flattered, someone else insulted, and then you can decide what to do.  But if you’re changing this and that and moving events around, you don’t need to tell.  You can even deny.  Without too much wickedness you can say, “You think you’re like that?  Huh!  How fascinating!”

It isn’t hard to disguise people.  If you make Vince short when he’s tall, give him a talent for the accordion, and have him deathly allergic to peanuts, you are probably home free.

I once read descriptions of several personality types, and I found myself in each one.  It is likely that if you write your characters precisely as you experience their real-life counterparts, the actual people won’t recognize themselves.  The girl you know is beautiful may see herself as ugly, or she may not be aware of how smart she is.  The person who truly is a miserable human being will very probably not see himself in the villain unless you give the villain his first and last name.

Life is an author’s source.  Don’t hold back from dipping into the well.

Here are some prompts:

•    Write a memory as if it were a story.  Make up the missing bits.  Take yourself back to the moment with sensory details: what you see, hear, smell, touch.  Include the mood and your thoughts and feelings.

•    Extend the memory beyond what you recall into a fictionalized future or even a few versions of the future.

•    Think of a time when you were victimized, maybe teased or ganged up on.  Replace yourself with someone you know.  Write how that person would have handled the situation.  Make it into a story.  You can try this with more than one stand-in for you.

Addendum:  Five minutes after posting this I got worried.  If you are writing about a memory that involves a crime or something that would seriously damage a real person’s reputation, I think you do need to be careful, because you don’t want to be sued for libel.  In that case, change the circumstances and the real characters enough to make the people unrecognizable.

Your Way

Before I get to the post topic, I have a request.  Right now my only website is on the larger HarperCollins website.  There’s a link to it on this page, below on the right, called “Official Website,” which it is, and many thanks to Harper for creating it.  However, my husband and I are planning a separate, new site.  (I’ll continue the blog, although it may move and I’ll announce the change and you won’t get lost.)  So, I have some questions and I may have more as we progress:  Do you visit author websites?  If you do and when you do, what’s the reason?  What do you want in a site?  What would you want on my site?  (We don’t yet know what’s technically possible.)  What do you like in sites you’ve visited?  What do you dislike?  Have any sites left you feeling frustrated or disappointed or annoyed?  Why?  And if there’s anything else you’d like to tell me about author websites, please do.

On April 8, 2010, Jen wrote, How can you tell when your story is sounding too familiar, like from something you’ve already written, or something you’ve read. I don’t want to be stealing any ideas from anyone, but sometimes when I write, the story starts to sound much of a muchness to what I’m reading, or at least parts of what I’m writing. I don’t do this on purpose, but still it happens. Or I’ll use a similar plot twist that I thought was entertaining. I also enjoy suspense, and like to use that extremely in my writing. But I want my story to be fresh, and don’t want to bore the reader in the first chapter, because it’s a previously used idea. (Or because I’m taking too long to jump into the plot. Or I jump into the plot too fast!) I like the concept of parallel universes, or doors between different realms, but it’s been taken many times. How do we make an old idea still new and exciting? I don’t have a problem with coming up with ideas. I have many, many story ideas, but it’s just a few that sound unoriginal.
Last December 9th, I wrote a post about predictability, and I don’t want to repeat what I said then, so I suggest you take a look.

When I wrote Ella Enchanted, I kept worrying about a sequence of four words that I thought I might have lifted from a song.  Turned out I hadn’t.  My four words were different, but even if they had been the same it wouldn’t have mattered.  They were just four ordinary words.  None of them was supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, which might really have caused me trouble.  Sometimes we (I) worry too much.

Writing is imitating.  We imitate life and books and movies.  Being a good imitator is valuable for a writer, maybe essential.  Also when I was writing Ella Enchanted, I reread Jane Austen, and started sounding like her on the page, and my critique buddies asked me what was going on, and I had to deliberately quit.

Here’s a prompt:  Read ten pages of Jane Austen (or more if you can’t put her down).  Pay attention to how she structures her sentences.  Write or rewrite a page in your current story imitating her voice.

Or pick a different writer with a distinctive voice, maybe Mark Twain or Charlotte Bronte or James M. Barrie, and imitate him or her.  Try more than one if you’re up to it.  This is excellent practice, because it makes you a more flexible writer and more aware of word choice, sentence and paragraph shape and length, approaches to dialogue, and every other aspect of bringing a scene to life.

Before I started to write the first book in the Disney Fairies series, Fairy Dust and the Quest for the Egg, I reread Barrie’s Peter Pan.  My intention was to approximate his style in my book, but I couldn’t do it; he’s such a supple writer; however, I noticed that he used the expression “of course” a lot, so I threw in many repeats of “of course” and hoped they would convey the flavor.  I just looked at his book again a minute ago and noticed that he used semicolons frequently; hence this sentence and the one before it.

Imitation is not plagiarism.  You shouldn’t copy another writer’s exact words into your stories, at least not more than four of them!  Plagiarism is unethical.

Having said that, actual copying isn’t a bad exercise, as long as that’s all it is, an exercise.  When I wrote The Fairy’s Mistake, I had never written a chapter book before, and my editor sent me samples of other chapter books.  Before I started writing my own I typed out one of Paula Danziger’s Amber Brown books – every word! – to see how she did it.

Here’s another prompt::  Copy a page of a book you love.  Have you learned anything?

Ideas can’t be copyrighted, only the expression of an idea in words.  Still, we want to be original.  I recently read a book that, in one aspect only, reminded me of Holes by Louis Sachar.  I love Holes, and I liked this other book, but I wished the author had thought of something else in this single area, or had at least referred to Holes.  If the main character had said something like, My life was just like Stanley Yelnats’s, I would have been happy, because the similarity wouldn’t have seemed sneaky.

A book that does a masterful and open job of connecting to another book is this year’s Newbery winner, When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead, which builds on an earlier Newbery, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle.  Art builds on the art that went before.  We take the old and rework it into something new, and Rebecca Stead did this ingeniously.

(By the way, When You Reach Me is historical fiction that takes place in New York City in the 1970s when the city was much less safe than it is now.  I hope you’ll read the book if you haven’t already, but I don’t want you to get the wrong picture of present-day New York.)

If you’d like to take your main character into an alternate universe, you can.  But you want to create your own alternate universe and your own way into it and not remake Oz and a tornado.  How to do this?  One way is to start from scratch with questions:  Am I writing a funny story or a sad one or a total tragedy?  Am I writing a mystery?  A funny story, for example, will call for a different, goofier universe than a serious story.

What kind of characters inhabit this world?  Fairies?  Dragons?  Philosopher eagles?  A combo of different sorts of creatures?  People?

Who is your main character who enters as a visitor or an escapee?  Maybe she isn’t human.  She may be an animal or a plant that has somehow become ambulatory and able to think and communicate.  Or it’s a rock or a paper clip.  Anything can succeed if you make it succeed.

Is this a happy universe or a troubled one?  How does it connect to the world your traveler starts out from?  It may or may not connect, or you may find out as you write.

You all know that I rely on lists, so for this project I would write a bunch of lists.  I might list some of the aspects of the real world that I love and aspects I definitely do not love.  You can use this list to develop your world.  Long ago, I read a short story about an alien who adored earth because we have food and we eat.  In his home galaxy there was no such thing.  Your main character could enter a world without birds and any concept of flight, for example.

List basics: size, time, light, colors, sound, smell.  Write down how your world might express these basics.  In Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, light moves slowly.  Remember, for your own creation, some – probably many – aspects of the new world should be what we’re used to or the reader will feel lost.

What problem or accident causes your character to leave?  If what she left behind was pretty good, she may just want to get back.  Before you decide, explore the possibilities.

What are the problems in the new place?  Make a list!

Write down possible means of entry into your invented world, other than a door or a wardrobe or a rabbit hole.  Maybe the way in could be connected to your main character’s character.  Suppose she’s great at math, and one day she walks into math class and none of the problems add up.  The teacher looks exactly like Mr. Mikan, except this Mr. Mikan has bushy eyebrows.  She’s in.  That simple.  I’d guess there are lots of ways to do this.

What might befall the main character once she enters?  Make a list.  There are many more possibilities than getting back home or saving the new world.  What else can you come up with?

I keep blathering on about lists because I think they’re a key to originality.  Lists free your mind to wander where you’ve never been before.  You write down seven ideas that seem boring, old, over-used, and then the eighth is a surprise, and the thirteenth is too.  Or you may have to write twenty options before you get to the fresh one.  Keep going.  And every so often glance back at the ideas you scorned to see if you might be able to breathe life into one or two of them.

There are prompts throughout this post.  I hope you try them and save them and have fun!

And, if you want to, please share your thoughts on author websites.  Thanks!

Plot or Character at the Helm

On April 7, 2010 EquusFerusCaballus, now known as Marmaladeland, wrote, Which is a more important element in a story: character development or plot? If you have good characters, should you go right ahead and bend a story to fit them, or wait until a better one comes along to click? If your plot is excellent, but the characters are as believable as purple unicorn turtles, should you write anyway?

Plot and character are as entwined as ivy on a trellis, and I can’t say which would be ivy and which trellis.  Or the chicken and the egg might be a better analogy.  It doesn’t matter which came first; you can’t have one without the other.  They’re equally important.

Marmaladeland, it is almost always a major no-no to force characters to behave a certain way because of plot.  I say almost because there are no absolutes in fiction writing.  Making a mean character suddenly nice, for instance, just for plot reasons is a good way to get those purple-unicorn-turtle characters.

I’ve probably said before that I’m more plot oriented than character driven.  I start with an idea and then invent characters who will fulfill the idea and go with it naturally.  But if you have characters who interest you and want to follow them, that’s fine too.  Legions of writers work this way, and I wouldn’t call their method bending the story in a bad way.

Suppose you have a main character, Sandra, fifteen years old, the most kindhearted person in the world.  It would wound her to hurt someone, even in the tiniest way, but she worries, with good reason, about being taken advantage of.  Let’s throw in also that she has trouble making decisions and she’s highly emotional, cries easily, laughs easily, angers easily and says things she regrets.

A little of her history: She’s new at Cloverleaf High School, pretty, wears the right clothes, is socially comfortable.  But at her last school her best friend betrayed her, took advantage of her kindness, and she isn’t over it.  What she wants most at the new school is a friend she feels close to and can trust.

Now let’s picture a boy, Drew, also fifteen, short for his age, who gets picked on by other kids, partly for his size and partly because he’s so serious.  He doesn’t fight back or laugh off the attacks, but he hates being ridiculed.  Let’s say he loves music and can play piano, guitar, and drums.

I’ll add one more character, Liza, fifteen too, who is over-friendly.  She flatters people and sometimes puts herself down by way of comparison, as in, “You’re brilliant.  I wish I had half your brains,” or “You have such a fashion sense.  I never know what to put together with what.”  An unrecognized part of Liza’s mind hates the people she flatters and hates herself for having to do it.

Now we have to imagine a situation.  It doesn’t have to be that much of a situation, because this is a character-driven story.  Suppose the three kids are in the drama club, and they’ve been cast in a one-act play together.  Sandra sees Liza as a possible friend, and she’s observed Drew being picked on and wants to help him.

Suppose Liza is the best actor of the three.  She could help the other two, but she can’t put herself forward this way.  Sandra and Drew are astute and find Liza condescending, even though she doesn’t mean to be.

Here’s the prompt:  Imagine a setting where your scene takes place.  Write the first rehearsal, keeping the characters true to themselves.  Continue the story if it interests you.  Don’t decide ahead of time that you do or don’t want Sandra and Liza to wind up as friends and one of them with Drew as a boyfriend, or any other outcome.  Don’t twist anybody to do anything.  If one or more of them changes in the course of the story, make clear how the change came about.

Now for a plot-driven story, the kind I do write.  The clearest example in my books is in my short comic novel, The Princess Test, which is based on “The Princess and the Pea.”  In that book I took the same approach as the one I wrote about last week.  I asked questions and found two major ones: Who could feel a pea through twenty mattresses?  And how is this a test of princessness?

The first question is the big character one. I don’t think anyone could really feel that pea, but there are probably many approaches to a solution.  For example, the princess could have long-distance hearing (this is fantasy) and have overheard the king and queen planning the test.  Or she could be a paranoid princess and tear her chamber apart, hunting for something amiss and finding the pea.

If you remember the story in detail, the successful princess doesn’t have to know she slept on a pea.  She has only to have a bad night’s sleep, so she can simply be an insomniac.  But I didn’t go that way.  I made her not a princess at all.  Lorelei is a supremely good-natured blacksmith’s daughter who’s highly sensitive and allergic to almost everything.  If the mattresses aren’t entirely made of swans’ feathers and the sheets aren’t silk with exactly the right thread count, she is certain to toss and turn till dawn.  And maybe the pea will add to her discomfort.

Then there was the lesser question of how to get her to the castle soaking wet in the middle of the night.  Ordinarily she wouldn’t be outside after dark and certainly not in the rain.  Lorelei’s mother died when Lorelei was fourteen, and the blacksmith had to hire a maid, Trudy, because Lorelei is useless around the cottage.  Trudy hates Lorelei for her general uselessness and plots to lose her in the forest.  Hence the late-night drenching.

Earlier, the prince has met Lorelei when he was out for a ride, and he’s fallen for her and she for him.  As for the king and queen, since this is a very silly tale, they get by just by being silly and adoring their son and wanting the best for him.

The point is, the characters behave according to their natures all the way through, because I’ve chosen those natures for the roles they have to play.  To take a deeper example, in Ella Enchanted, I  made Ella spunky so that she could have a shot at overcoming the curse of obedience.

Here are two plot-based prompts:

•    Three students discover (you make up how) that their popular middle school principal is embezzling part of their school’s state funding.  The money is supposed to be used to build a new library, and he has hired a construction company that will skimp on materials.  The building won’t be safe, but the company and the principal will split the money that will be saved.  Exposing the principal isn’t easy.  They’re just kids, and he’s been principal for fifteen years.  Who are the students?  What qualities do they have that make them able to succeed?  What qualities do they have that trip them up?  Write the story.

•    Going back to fairy tales, seems to me that the characters in “Rumplestiltskin” need work.  The father boasts that his daughter can spin straw into gold when she can’t.  The king says he’s going to marry her if she can, execute her if she can’t.  The daughter does little more than wring her hands.  Rumplestiltskin wants the child and then gives the queen an extra chance to keep him.  Who are these characters?  Explain why they behave as they do.  Flesh them out in a story without changing the outcome (unless you decide to).

I loved the discussion that followed the last post.  If you want to share thoughts, please do.  But first write, so you don’t lose the writing energy.  Have fun and save what you write!

Spinning Fairy Tales

Before I start, thanks to everybody who came to a tour event.  I was so happy to meet you!

On April 4, 2010, Guinevere Amoureaux wrote, I have a problem with revamping fairy tales.  I always ask myself “why” and “how come” but I never find anything.  Then, when I read a retold fairy tale, I say, “Oh yeah! Why didn’t I think of that?”  And then, when the book THE THIRTEENTH PRINCESS, a retelling of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” came out and I saw it at the library, I nearly boiled over. All day I was saying to myself, “Why didn’t I think about that?” I could have JUST asked, “WHY did the princesses dance every night?” Could you give me a bit of advice on this topic?
I’ve been fascinated by “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” too.  When I wrote The Two Princesses of Bamarre I was really trying to tell the tale of the twelve, but I couldn’t get it.  After I read your question, I looked The Thirteenth Princess up online, although I confess I haven’t read it.  When the review said that there were twelve princesses because the king kept trying for a son, my reaction was exactly the same as yours: Why didn’t I think of that?

Let me go through my process with this story as an example.  Here’s the tale, lifted (legally) from this URL at Wikipedia

Twelve princesses slept in twelve beds in the same room; every night their doors were securely locked, but in the morning their shoes were found to be worn through as if they had been dancing all night.

The king, perplexed, promised his kingdom and a daughter to any man who could discover the princesses’ secret within three days and three nights, but those who failed within the set time limit would be put to death.

An old soldier returned from war came to the king’s call after several princes had failed in the endeavor to discover the princesses’ secret. Whilst traveling through a wood he came upon an old woman, who gave him an invisibility cloak and told him not to eat or drink anything given to him by one of the princesses who would come to him in the evening, and to pretend to be fast asleep after the princess left.

The soldier was well received at the palace just as the others had been and indeed, in the evening, the eldest princess came to his chamber and offered him a cup of wine. The soldier, remembering the old woman’s advice, threw it away secretly and began to snore very loudly as if asleep.

The princesses, sure that the soldier was asleep, dressed themselves in fine clothes and escaped from their room by a trap door in the floor. The soldier, seeing this, donned his invisibility cloak and followed them down. He trod on the gown of the youngest princess, whose cry to her sisters that all was not right was rebuffed by the eldest. The passageway led them to three groves of trees; the first having leaves of silver, the second of gold, and the third of diamonds. The soldier, wishing for a token, broke off a twig of each as evidence. They walked on until they came upon a great lake. Twelve boats with twelve princes in them were waiting. Each princess went into one, and the soldier stepped into the same boat as the youngest. The young prince in the boat rowed slowly, unaware that the soldier was causing the boat to be heavy. The youngest princess complained that the prince was not rowing fast enough, not knowing the soldier was in the boat. On the other side of the lake was a castle, into which all the princesses went and danced the night away.

The princesses danced until their shoes were worn through and they were obliged to leave. This strange adventure went on the second and third nights, and everything happened just as before, except that on the third night the soldier carried away a golden cup as a token of where he had been. When it came time for him to declare the princesses’ secret, he went before the king with the three branches and the golden cup, and told the king all he had seen. The princesses saw there was no use to deny the truth, and confessed. The soldier chose the eldest princess as his bride for he was not a very young man, and was made the king’s heir.
The version I know ends intriguingly by saying that a day was added to the princes’ enchantment for every night they danced with the princesses.

There are oodles of mysteries in this tale in addition to the puzzle about the quantity of princesses.  When I read it or any fairy tale, I question everything.  That’s what I’d like you to do right now.  Write a list of questions or mysteries, aspects of this story that seem unresolved.  Try to come up with at least eight.  My questions are below, but don’t look.  STOP READING AND WRITE.

I thought of continuing in a separate post, but that seemed untrusting.  Here are my questions:

1.    Why do the princesses share a bedroom in an enormous castle?

2.    Why is the king locking them in at night?

3.    Why aren’t evening entertainments held right there at the castle?

4.    If he cares so much about the dancing slippers, why doesn’t the king deprive his daughters of them at night and let them walk barefoot to the privy?

5.    Why does he kill the unsuccessful suitors?

6.    Why three days and nights for the trial rather than one or twenty-five or any other number?

7.    Generally, what’s up with this crazy king?

8.    Why does the old woman help the soldier?

9.    Who is she?

10.    What is she doing with a cloak of invisibility?

11.    Why are the princesses willing to let young men die rather than reveal the secret of their dancing slippers?

12.    Why do they dance with the princes?  How did it begin?

13.    Why three groves of trees, and why are their leaves made of precious metals and jewels?  (This is my favorite part of the story.)

14.    Is this enchanted world of the trees, the lake, and the castle underground?

15.    Why are the princes there?

16.    What does the soldier think of all this?

You may have come up with different questions than mine, maybe more, maybe fewer.  There’s no right or wrong number or right or wrong question.

So that’s my approach with fairy tales.  Questions jump out at me, and I make up answers.  I follow the answers to more questions and more answers, and eventually a story emerges.

When I attempted to turn “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” into a novel, I began by eliminating nine princesses, because three main characters seemed interesting and twelve impossible for me and the reader to keep straight.  Then I decided that the old woman was a sorcerer in disguise and that the king was consumed by grief for his dead wife, and I had an idea that the groves of trees somehow represented the seasons.  (I loved that idea.)

I got stuck in several places.  Even if the old woman was a sorcerer, I didn’t know why he/she wanted the princes discovered and why she chose the soldier, and I couldn’t figure out why they were enchanted and what their enchantment was.  At one point I decided that they might be specters, which seemed promising.

The obstacle I couldn’t get around was the princesses.  They seemed the obvious choices for heroines, but I hated them for allowing all those suitors to die.  Eventually I let the enchanted princes and the soldier go and lopped off one princess.  The sorcerer, who had been malevolent at the beginning, turned into kindly Rhys.

This wasn’t easy.  I was despairing when I couldn’t figure out the original, beloved fairy tale.  My story emerged slowly, and I no longer remember how I came to it.  The moral is, though, that the fairy tale is a jumping off point.  It doesn’t matter if you stick with it.  What’s important – the only important thing – is writing a story, which is bound to be your own, even if you hew closely to a known tale.  You’ll put something of yourself into it.

I’ve been thinking about “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” again.  I may have a new approach that will allow me to write it.  But if not and it veers off again and I get another different story, I’ll just throw up my hands and celebrate.

Here’s a prompt: The craziest fairy tale I know of is “Lovely Ilonka,” which you can find in Andrew Lang’s Crimson Fairy Book.  The Lang books (each named after a different color, and the series contains the well-known tales and many lesser-known ones) may be in your library, and they’ve all been digitized, so you can get them for free online.  Please don’t read the abridged version in Wikipedia, because you won’t see the full wackiness.  Read the fairy tale, ask yourself questions about it, develop your own interpretation, and see where you wind up.  Have fun, and save what you write!