Setting Set Up

On January 14, 2010, Gail Zuniga posted this comment:  I’m wondering when you are writing a novel do you have to describe where it takes place in the first chapter or can you drop little hints here and there and later on go into detail of what the town or city looks like?

In general I like the hints approach.  I worry that loading down a first chapter with description will prevent a reader from getting engaged in the story.  But there are many exceptions.  You may want to start with description to create atmosphere or to set a mood.  Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt starts this way.  The entire book turns on a first descriptive chapter, and I love it.  The first chapter of Hawaii by James Michener (not for children) is devoted to the geological development of the island.  Many readers adore this chapter, but I never managed to drag myself all the way through it, although I enjoyed the rest of the book when I read it decades ago.

A setting may be intrinsically fascinating, and knowing it may be critical to reader understanding.  For example, suppose your story starts in a tunnel that’s inhabited by giant spiders whose webs are works of art and a bunch of eco-tourists is entering the tunnel, then you may want to go into some depth (no pun intended) about the tunnel and the webs, and I’d guess the reader will be happy.  I certainly wouldn’t toss a book for going on about spider art.

Of course the kind of story you’re writing has some bearing on how much setting you include.  If you’re working on a thriller or an adventure story, and you want action-action-action, you may need to keep setting to a minimum.  The reader gets only the details he needs.  If there’s a bicycle chase, the reader will probably need information about the bikes.  The villain on a lightweight racing bike will have an advantage over the hero on a mountain bike, unless a mountain is involved.  And you’ll probably want the reader to see the bikes – possibly shiny red for the racing bike and rusty green for the mountain bike.  The reader will need to know if the chase is in a city or on a rural dirt road, and maybe or maybe not that it starts in front of the courthouse.  Almost certainly the reader will not have to know that there aren’t many free parking spots along the street – unless that’s important.

Everything depends on everything else.  In a thriller or an adventure story, the author may decide to skimp on other elements in addition to setting.  Thoughts, depth of characterization, dialogue, relationships among characters, all may be streamlined for the sake of a fast pace.  I’m not making a judgment.  I like a story that gallops.  And other kinds of stories, too.

Sometimes setting is a tool for character development.  When the reader sees Kevin’s bedroom, for instance, she learns something about Kevin or his parents.  The route Kevin takes to school, if he has a choice, will be revealing.  Maybe he likes to pass a particular house because his old math teacher used to live there.  The author may want to linger at the front gate and show what Kevin cares about.

Setting can be an instrument of plot.  In my novel, Dave at Night, Dave is sent to an orphanage so forbidding that he is desperate to get away.

This is the beginning of Fairies and the Quest for Never land, which will be out in June:

    “Gwendolyn Jane Mary Darling Carlisle,” Grandma whispered, putting down her teacup with trembling fingers, “you are Wendy Darling returned to life.”
    For her seventh birthday, Gwendolyn had come to breakfast wearing a white dress trimmed with eyelet lace.
    “Fetch the scrapbook from my dressing table, dear,” Grandma said.  “I want to see.”

I never tell the reader whether breakfast is eaten in the dining room or the kitchen or what the room looks like or even what Gwendolyn or her grandmother eat.  I do happen to mention orange juice in passing, but that’s it.  However, later, I tell the reader about Gwendolyn’s street of row houses because the information is momentarily necessary in the story.  I provide much more detail about Fairy Haven on Never Land, both because the place is central to the plot, and also because it’s central to Gwendolyn herself.

Setting isn’t an issue only in the first chapter of a book.  Stories move.  We have to reveal setting continuously.

So how do you present setting to your reader?  As it comes along for the most part.  If you’re writing from a single viewpoint, whether in first person or third, you can show the reader the sights, sounds, and smells as your main character encounters them, even in a place he knows well.  It’s always handy when a main character is in a new place, though.  If Kevin starts a new school, he’ll be paying attention, and the description will come delightfully naturally.

Sometimes it’s hard to work in setting information.  Say Kevin visits his friend Julie, which he’s often done in the past.  They sit  in the living room where there’s a fish tank.  The fish are going to be part of the story, so the reader needs to know about them, because you don’t want fish erupting out of nowhere.  I don’t like it when writers convey information in an unnatural way.  I’m opposed to having Kevin say, “So, Julie, I see your dad is still keeping the fish tank.”  Kevin wouldn’t say that, because they both see the fish tank and know it’s Julie’s dad’s hobby.  But he might say, “I always think the fish are staring at me.”  Or you might describe the room in Kevin’s thoughts.  Since he’s been there before you need a hook, not much of a hook, something small, like, The room always looked heavy, as if its gravity could sink the house.  Two long sofas, five chairs, the fish tank, the cabinet full of china, the thick drapes.  If Kevin has a poetic mind he might think that even the air, with its dots of filtered sunlight, have weight.  And there, nestled in with the other details, is the fish tank.  This method is particularly effective if you don’t want the reader to linger on the fish.  Suppose you want the fish event, whatever it is, to be a surprise.  You’ve informed the reader that the tank is there, but you’ve emphasized something else, the somberness of the room.

Setting is a big topic, and this has been a long post.  If you have more questions on the subject, please post them.

Here’s a prompt:  Your main character has lost something.  She (or he) backtracks to search for it.  In the time since she was there, even if that was only five minutes before, the place she goes to has become haunted.  This place may not be a house or a graveyard.  Go!

Save what you write, and have fun!

Both Feet in the Story Door

On January 13, 2010 Maybe a Writer definitely wrote, What I can’t seem to get, is what happens right after my beginning.  I sometimes don’t even know where I’m taking the story, but I have a tiny idea for a plot. The story I’m working on is the most well-planed out I have, but I’m still on page three. Any ideas?

Alas, I’m having the same problem right now, and this will be my twenty-first book, counting just the published ones!  I’m on page thirty-one, not three, but I haven’t figured out how to move further into my story.  What I think I’m working on is a fantasy mystery sequel to an old Gothic story that involves embodiments of the south wind and the king of a river.  The issue may be that I haven’t made either of them real in my mind yet, so they’re not working as characters.  So far I haven’t even introduced them into the story.

I haven’t run into this particular problem before, although I’ve written about all sorts of creatures.  I don’t believe in fairies, but I’ve had no trouble making them come alive on the page.  I’m writing notes to figure out how I’m stuck and where I can go next.

For you, Maybe a Writer and anyone else who shares our predicament, there may be something inside your story that’s stopping you.  In 1993 I wanted to write a novel based on Cinderella, but the fairytale itself got in my way.  Cinderella is so disgustingly good and so incomprehensibly obedient that I didn’t know what to make of her, and I didn’t like her.  I couldn’t get started until I thought of the curse of obedience.  When I had that, I understood her and I was able to write about her.

If your trouble is inside your story, try my method and write notes about it.  But notes don’t work for everybody, and they don’t always work for anyone.  You can talk to a friend or relative about the way your story might go.  You can even talk out loud to yourself about it.  It may also help to look at my post of October 28, 2009 about writer’s block.

This prompt comes from a writing book called What If?, which is full of terrific prompts.  (Kid alert:  Most of this book is fine for writers and readers of any age, but some chapters are for high school and above.  Check with a parent or a librarian.)  The prompt comes from the book’s title.  Take whatever you’ve got as a beginning and ask yourself “What if?” about what might happen next.  Ask this repeatedly and write down the possibilities, whatever ideas come to you no matter how crazy they are.  As in, What if the girl in the green dress who is all alone at a party sees a framed photo on the mantelpiece and recognizes one of the people in it as her sister.  Or what if she starts writing on a wall of the living room where the party is happening.  Or what if she interrupts two dancers and starts dancing with them.  And so on.

Write ten what-ifs before looking them over.  Try the one that appeals to you the most and see where it takes you.

This is a variant on another prompt in What If?:  Write ten beginning scenes without thinking about what might come next, and make the scenes at least three pages long.  The purpose is to get away from anxiety and think only about what will grab a reader. 

When you’re finished, pick five and write another scene for each.  Next, pick three out of the five and write another scene for each of them.  Then see if you want to continue with any one of them.

I generally write in order, but you don’t have to.  You might try taking the characters from your first scene, those three pages, and write another scene for them, out of sequence.  If there are no characters yet, this is a good time to invent some and take the pressure off plot.  The new scene could be something you have in mind to happen later in the story, or it could be something that went before.  Or it could simply be an exploration of the characters’ relationships with one another.  Write the scene in the world of the story.  If the story takes place in the kingdom of Wohadfub, keep it there.  If the story is set in your home town, keep it there, too.

If you’re a kid, under twenty-one, say, I don’t think you need to worry about finishing stories.  The problem will take care of itself if you keep writing.  You will eventually start a story that you can finish.

If you’re over twenty-one, you probably shouldn’t worry either, because worrying does no good.  But for me there is always some gritting of teeth to get myself to the end of a book.  And stubbornness.  I’m utterly unwilling for a book to get the better of me.

I’ve mentioned that I’m writing poetry for adults, and I’m unpublished as a poet.  While I would very very, as many verys as can be, like to be published, there is freedom in not being.  Nobody cares what my poems are like, because nobody (except a few other aspiring poets) is reading them.  Little is at stake.  I can take chances and be outrageous.  If you aren’t published, I hope you will use your freedom.  And I hope you’ll have publishing success too.  But for now, experiment!  Have fun! And save whatever you come up with!

Goodbye Dialogue Land

On January 4th, 2010, Inkquisitive asked, “...do you have any help for those of us who seem to live in Dialogue Land? I know you have touched on this a little before, but do you have any suggestions on how to convert a conversation-heavy scene into more action? My book is starting to look like a play (which I do not want) with bits of narrative strewn among a majority of conversation. Thanks.

Here are some suggestions for getting from Dialogue Land into Action Land.

Suppose your main character’s objective is to restore a friendship.  In real life and fiction that’s usually achieved with words, but this time your job is to get there with minimal dialogue.  Consider how your main character, James, can win back Hanna’s trust with few words, and not a letter either.  You don’t have to retreat into wordlessness, however.  James can be thinking like crazy.  In addition to thinking, what can he do?

Or, write a story with a main character who is not a talker.  She may not even be much of a verbal thinker.  She expresses herself by action.  Make her mad at someone.  How does she deal with her anger without talking or screaming or explaining her feelings?  Bring in more characters and stick mainly to action.

Silence can pack a huge emotional wallop.  In life and in fiction when one person stops talking to another, you have explosive tension.  Friends doing something together without a word – walking in the woods, cooking, sitting by a fire – can convey companionship and peace.  Setting can help, and so can body language.  Two people slumped in chairs in a hospital lounge suggest grief or hopelessness.

Think of a retreat in which the participants have vowed silence.  In spite of the silence, however, relationships are formed, feelings conveyed.  Try writing about a main character at a silent weekend retreat.  Make her want something that is counter to the intentions of the retreat.  How does she go about getting what she wants?  One way to approach this might be through humor.

Maybe this can’t be done entirely without words, but what fun it would be to write – or read – a mystery set in a place of silence.

When you find yourself locked in dialogue, think of it as being stuck on the phone.  Your cousin has called.  You love him, but he’s a chatterbox, and after a while you remember that you’ve eaten nothing for eight hours or a light bulb needs changing or you promised to mow the lawn, so you look for a friendly, unhurtful way to get off the phone.  Try the same technique in Dialogue Land.  Think of a reason for one of your characters to end the conversation.  Break everybody up and move the story to a different location.  Make the next scene a solo one.  Your main character is alone.  He has no one to talk to.  What does he do?

Radical cutting also may help.  Do all these words need to be said?  Can some just be eliminated?  Suppose your characters are talking about an event that they all witnessed.  Try showing the event.  Your characters can have thoughts about it, but let the action unfold as it happens.  If one of the characters missed the occurrence, you can just say in narration that he was told.

I have not done this recently, but it might be a good idea:  Watch an old silent movie.  In silent movies there were occasional speech lines shown on the screen, but almost everything was accomplished without them.  Observe how it was done.

Look through picture books.  Granted, these are simple stories, but they might be useful anyway.  See what the images convey, because you can write in images.  You can write about facial expressions and reduce the necessity of having someone say what he’s feeling.

Often the motivation for dialogue is to develop character, and dialogue is wonderful for that, but think how your characters can reveal themselves without words.  We learn a lot about Kirby if he combs his hair in a mirror while Kathleen weeps on the sofa a yard away.

I’ve saved the most obvious for last, because it is obvious.  Write an action story:  a chase, an escape, a natural disaster.  These can be dialogue heavy too, but don’t let yours be.  When your characters start getting chatty, make the roof cave in or the bad guys show up.  Tie your characters up with tape across their mouths.

Prompts are scattered through this post.  Here they are, collected:

•    Restore a friendship in a scene.  No more than ten words may be spoken.

•    Write a story about a main character who isn’t a talker and isn’t a verbal thinker either.  You may want to get her mad at someone.  Or do something else with her.

•    Set a story at a silent retreat.  Your main character wants something and it isn’t silence or spiritual growth.  What happens?

•    Watch a silent movie (I love Buster Keaton) or read a bunch of picture books.  Use one of them as the basis of a story with little dialogue.

•    Write an action story about a chase or an escape or a natural disaster.  Or all three!  When any of your characters speak, don’t let the speech go beyond a single line.

Have fun and save what you write.

Keeping On Keeping On

On December 28, 2009 the Tenth Muse posted this comment:  When I write, I have two issues with finishing. My first is that I almost write the story up in my head, and when I attempt to put it to paper, it feels tedious and I usually leave it unwritten. My next is most likely born from the first. 🙂 It’s that, after I’ve written the whole thing down or put it together inside my head, I realize I also want to do something else with the story. Then the new idea begins to take over, and I start second guessing my original ideas. And then I feel extremely lost!

Some authors (not I) won’t talk about their works in progress because talking saps their urge to write.  They believe that they use the same process to talk and to write.  When they return to the writing, they feel they’ve already done it, and they’re not interested in repeating themselves, so then they’re stuck.  Tenth Muse, it sounds as if you may run into the same difficulty just by thinking about your story.  Fascinating.

Of course you have to think.  I believe detail may be the problem, not thought.  I can talk about the books I’m in the middle of because I never achieve the level of detail in a conversation that I need when I’m bringing a scene to life on a page.  Tenth Muse, I’m working only from your question, so I may be miles off base, but I wonder if, when you get to the writing, you’re telling a story rather than showing it to a reader.

Here is a true tale from my family history, which, alas, doesn’t show my relatives in an exemplary light:  My great aunt, whom I no longer remember and whose name I don’t know, was plump plus, and so was my grandmother.  Both were relatively poor, very economical, and not very ethical.  They lived in New York City, where I grew up.  In those long-ago days a subway ride cost a nickel, and they didn’t want to pay two nickels when one would do.  So they put a single nickel in the slot and squeezed into the turnstile together.  And got stuck, and a policeman had to come to get them out.

This anecdote caused hilarity at family gatherings whenever it was trotted out.  It’s a good story, but how much better it would be if it were fleshed out by a fiction writer.  For example, what if the sisters were in the middle of an argument when they got stuck, or one blamed the other for their predicament.  Was it winter or summer?  Were they working their way out of winter coats when the cop arrived?  Did one of them need to go to the bathroom?  Suppose they had purchases that they’d slid under the turnstile ahead of them, which someone now could steal – or did steal, costing a whole dollar, rather than a nickel.  The story can become funnier or more serious.  Suppose this were the 1930s, the Depression, and the purchases were a week’s food.

A story in the writer’s head or transcribed from the writer’s head isn’t likely to be fully realized.  We haven’t grappled with what’s happening inside the story.  In the family yarn above, as I thought of possibilities, new possibilities suggested themselves.  If I wrote it as a real story, I’d start by thinking about what each character was like, their relationship, circumstances, where they were coming from and going to.  As soon as I had them talking to each other, the narrative would start to go down a certain path.  More ideas would come, but some ideas would become impossible because of what went before.  I might turn into a dead end and have to delete back to the beginning of the dead end.

Tenth Muse (and everyone else), coming up with new and divergent ideas sounds positive.  Suppose I thought the story would end up in my aunt’s fifth floor walk-up apartment, but then it seemed better to end with my aunt on a date with the arresting officer.  We can explore those ideas.  The key is to explore them through detail, using narrative and dialogue.  If you slow your story down for detail the tedium may go away or at least diminish.  Oddly enough, slowing down is likely to pick up the pace for the reader, who will get involved with the characters you are revealing.

As for feeling lost, that may be the sensation I hate most when I’m writing and the one I experience the most often.  You and I need to develop a tolerance for it.  For me, finding a story is like picking my way through a jungle.  I know that on the other side of the vegetation is a parking lot and a van with The End painted on the side, but the only trail markers are occasional notches in the stems of a species of meat-eating plant.

To continue through the jungle – rather than standing still and howling, or jumping on the first helicopter out – is hard.  It may help if you get interested in the details:  the fauna and flora around you, the bird whose cry sounds amazingly like popcorn popping, or the flower with petals the color of a sunset.  You’re still lost, but you’re entertaining yourself as you inch along.

This week’s prompt: Take a family story, or take my family story (please!), and retell it with details, probably invented details.  Don’t think that you have to stick to the real events.  Use the ones that appeal to you and toss the rest.  You can rewrite history and send the anecdote in a new direction.  You can be funny or serious.  Teach the reader about your Uncle Matthew and Cousin Isabel.  Let him see the old-fashioned kitchen with the iron sink and the water that comes out in spurts, smell the bread baking or the cabbage boiling, hear the loud voices or the whispers.  Have fun, and save what you wrote!

The Challenge of Length

On 12/23/09, Asma posted this comment:  I was actually referring to the process of beginning to write, after an idea has formed in your mind. I have attempted your advice to start in the middle, but usually I don’t know where to go from there or where I’ve come from. If I try to begin at the beginning, I usually don’t know where to start, get bored, or become obsessed with perfection. I usually don’t have this problem with short stories (my reference to length) as the entire plot is so short as to have fully materialized in my mind, and all I have to do is write it down. Longer pieces are my real difficulty.

This is excellent timing, because I’m poised to start on a new book.  For me, writing a beginning is the end of the phase that I hate most, which is shaping in my mind and in notes enough of a story to get going with.  A non-writer friend was surprised that this stage wasn’t fun, more fun than anything else – fooling around, trying one plot notion after another, being creative.  Instead, I feel like I’m in a big empty house with no windows, and I whirl from room to room, facing only blank walls.

Eventually, an idea glows out of a white wall, and I write it down.  With maddening slowness, more ideas emerge.  I’ve called them forth, of course, but it doesn’t feel as if I’ve done anything.  It feels more like all the ideas in the world are off at a party, and occasionally one of them hears my plaintive voice from a hundred miles away, and it condescends to visit me.

Here’s how I’m getting started, in generalities:  I want to write another mystery with some of the same characters from the last one, and I want to associate it with a fairy tale.  So I reread a bunch of fairy tales and wrote notes about what I might do with some of them.  With each I reached a point of stuckness and couldn’t go any further in my imagination.

Finally I found a tale that fits the setting I have in mind and decided to write a mystery sequel.  By now I’ve written eight pages of notes, and I still don’t know who the villain will be and how the story will work itself out.  It’s not bad not to know who’s evil in a mystery, because I won’t telegraph the answer to the reader.  Still, I like to have a dim idea of an ending to aim toward.

Then I thought of a larger problem that I can wrap the tale in, and I know, more or less, how the larger problem should end, so I’m ready to begin, even though most of the story is a muddle.

I lost my way writing both Fairest and The Two Princesses of Bamarre, and I wandered in notes and wrong directions for months or more before I found the story.  This was very painful.  I don’t want it to happen again, but it may, and it may on this next book, and if it does I will be miserable, probably for a long time.  So far in my writing career I haven’t gone astray enough to abandon a book before finishing it, but even that could happen.

This kind of misery is the lot of many writers.  We try beginning after beginning.  We start in the middle and then slowly figure out what went before.  We get bored (I do).  We get trapped trying to make a little piece perfect.  Then we slog on.

The most important quality for a writer to cultivate is patience.  A long piece of fiction is the work of months at the very least.  Sometimes a ten-page scene will take a ridiculous time to straighten itself out.  We put up with this because we belong to the insane writing branch of humanity.

The second most important quality is kindness to self.  Poor me (for example), suppose I need to write at least a page today, but nothing is happening.  Maybe I’ll feel better if I stare out the window or take a shower.  Poor me, I am so dumb that I made a mistake in Chapter Three that makes Chapters Four, Five, and Six impossible.  But I forgive myself, because otherwise I will have to leap out of my skin.

The third quality is doggedness.  I am going to finish this expletive-deleted story no matter what.

Specifically about story shape – I like compact ideas as the basis for long novels.  Simple plots don’t have to turn into short stories; they can become big books.  Robin McKinley wrote the novel Beauty and Donna Jo Napoli wrote the novel Beast, both based on the fairy tale “Beauty and the Beast,” which is only fifteen pages long in the version I own.

I love to work with an uncomplicated tale, because then I can embroider and heap on details and twists.  My The Princess Test comes from “The Princess and the Pea,” which is one of the shortest of fairy tales.  I thought, Well, who could possibly feel a pea under all those mattresses?  And what was she doing, soaking wet at the castle door?  Why did the king and queen invent a pea-mattress test as proof of princess-ness?  How many other crazy tests can I add?  Answering these questions produced many pages of story.

So here’s a prompt.  Take a rudimentary story, like Rumpelstiltskin, or a nursery rhyme like this one:

    Little Miss Muffet
    Sat on a tuffet,
    Eating her curds and whey;
    Along came a spider,
    Who sat down beside her
    And frightened Miss Muffet away.

and write about it.  If these don’t interest you, pick your own.  I’m not saying you should write a novel, although it would be cool if you did.  Just write about how you might add depth to the stories and complicate them.  Take Miss Muffet for example.  The spider sits next to her.  Is it the same size she is?  Is the rhyme about an invasion of giant spiders?  Aaa!

Have fun and save what you write!

The Mystery Puzzle

Before I start, I want to point out a new link on the page, right below the two websites, which will take you to an interview with me.  I hope you’ll check it out – and then come back.
This week I’m combining two questions.  On December 11, 2009 Amanda posted this comment:  I’m thinking about writing a mystery novel but I’ve never written a mystery before. Do you have any tips on how to write one?
And on December 23, 2009 Curious Mind wrote:  I like a bit of mystery in my writing, but cannot seem to hold back information very well, and there is no suspense.  Any suggestions?
Taking the second question first, a lot can be fixed in revision, so putting everything in is fine in the first draft.  Sometimes I include information simply because I need to know it, and I’m discovering it on the page.  When the story is written, or when I’m far enough along to tell what’s necessary and what’s not, I prune.
Heaps of background can bog a story down, without a doubt, but suspense and withholding information aren’t necessarily the same.  Sometimes the more the reader knows about a problem the more worried he will be.  Giant spiders in the house are scary, but giant spiders who can find their way through a maze faster than a rat are scarier.  Throw in a main character who is deathly allergic to spider bites, and the reader should be wringing her hands in fright.  I don’t want to keep this information to myself, and I particularly don’t want to whip it out at the last minute.  The reader should have time to stew in fear.
Lawrence Block writes a mystery series about a crime-solving thief, Bernie Rhodenbarr.  I don’t like Block’s technique of skipping over details that help Bernie solve the crime and then letting the reader in on them later when the truth comes out.  Unfair! I yell at my book – and continue reading, because the story is too much fun to put down.
Amanda, I have written only one mystery, so I’m no expert.  Right now, I’m writing notes and exploring what may be my second.  I’m feeling at sea, the way I usually feel at this stage of any book.  I don’t even know what the mystery will be yet.  I have an idea who some of my main characters will be, but I don’t know which are good and which are evil.  At least two will have secret identities, but I don’t know which character will attach to which secret identity.
Some mystery writers have it all plotted out before they start.  I’m sure they’re initially confused – or I hope they are – but they wait for certainty and an outline before they begin the narrative.  Others just plunge in.  I’m in the middle but closer to the plungers.  Still, I need more of a direction than I have so far.
Ambiguity about who’s bad and who’s good can work in your favor and mine in a mystery.  A character can act with kindness and then turn around and do something terrible, leaving the reader mixed up.  You can maintain the uncertainty and push the character to finally reveal himself – and then you can cover up the revelation so your reader doesn’t even notice it.  For example, suppose something very valuable goes missing and your villain is a thief.  Suppose also that the owner of the object has just moved and the movers put boxes everywhere, kitchen boxes in the den, bedroom boxes in the kitchen.  Throw in that the owner is super forgetful and could have put the precious thing in any box or have left it behind in the old house in a dark corner of a closet.  To make matters worse, the owner has a new puppy who’s prone to eat almost anything.  By now there’s enough dust in the reader’s eye to conceal a league of thieves.
At the heart of a mystery is a who question, of course.  Who committed the crime?  The crime can be anything from murder to a stolen cupcake to a betrayed friendship.  In the mystery I just finished, A Mansioner’s Tale (tentative title), the crime that starts the mystery off, the theft of a dog, isn’t the main crime.  The first is a precursor to the second, but Lodie, my main character, doesn’t realize that.
Underlying the who question is the why question.  Why was the crime committed?  What was the motive?  It’s probably possible to find out who without ever learning why.  I bet this happens often in actual crimes, and I suspect it’s frustrating for a jury.  Still, I think a successful whodunit might be written without ever answering the why question.
In most cases, however, the why question is answered.  In the mystery I just finished, the victim is hated by many.  There are legions of suspects, and the reader doesn’t know whom to trust.  But you could go the other way.  The deceased could be beloved by everyone.  Who would hit such a saint over the head?
You can pile on puzzles and possible clues.  In A Mansioner’s Tale several characters wear rings and bracelets made of twine.  Lodie wonders if the wearers belong to a secret society that has it in for the victim.  A character who presents herself as poor is seen haggling with a jeweler over an expensive bracelet.  A honey-tongued man speaks harshly.  A gate is left open.  An ox is mauled.
It’s fun to confuse the reader.  Going back to Curious Mind’s question, extra information can add to the confusion.  Your main character can hear gossip about someone that may be entirely false.  Or the gossip can be contradictory.  Or the intelligence can be true, but the source can be a known liar.
You can fool around with all the elements, not just who and why but also how, as well as opportunity, alibi, ability (a small woman overpowering a big man, for example).
Even in stories that aren’t primarily mysteries, there are likely to be puzzles.  Somebody dislikes the main character, and he wonders why.  He gets straight As on all his Chemistry tests, yet the teacher gives him a C on his report card.  His sister keeps coming home late from school.  His mother has begun to sew although she used to hate domesticity in any form.
For a little more on this subject, you may want to revisit my post of May 27, 2009 called Mystery Mystery when I wrote about another aspect of mysteries. 
Here’s a prompt:  Think of someone you know but not very well.  Invent a secret for this person, one that goes with your idea of her.  It can be a dark secret or not.  Turn her into a character.  If she were going to commit a crime, what would it be?
Now do the same for four more people.  If you are inspired, write a mystery story involving one or more of them.  Have fun, and save what you write!

Plot luck

Alexis wrote on December 2nd, I love writing, but I usually just write with very little in mind, typing whatever comes to me and it ends up this elongated mess with no clear plot and I haven’t the slightest idea on how to do so without constantly worrying about it. When I deliberately set out to make a plot, I think of that chart I get in middle school, where I had to define the rising action and the climax and the falling action and so on. This just seems to take all the fun and creativity out of writing for me, but I know I just can’t write blindly. Can you please help me?

Not all stories have a crisis. Some books are a chronicle, held together by the charm of the characters or the fascination of the subject. Joan Abelove’s Go and Come Back is narrated by a girl in a Peruvian tribe that is visited by two American anthropologists. The story begins with the arrival of the anthropologists and ends a year later with their departure. Many things happen during their stay. One of the anthropologists gets very sick, for example, but her illness isn’t the story’s crisis, because there is no crisis, and yet the book is engaging and hard to put down. I recommend it highly, one of my favorites, and an example of how this kind of story can succeed. For middle school kids and older.

I think I’ve written before that a book or a story can be structured around an event, like summer camp or a wilderness adventure. In such a story, this happens, that happens; maybe there’s a crisis, maybe not. But there’s an accretion of experience. The main character comes away changed, and the reader is satisfied.

Some books are short stories strung together by common characters. Some of the stories may follow a rising-action-crisis-falling-action format and some may not. The reader gets attached to the characters and wants to see them in new situations, wants minor characters in one story to star in another. This works too.

My books are plot driven more than character driven, but that doesn’t mean I know what I’m doing. Sometimes I feel like I’m lost in a maze. A while back, in misguided desperation, I bought two books on plot, thinking I might discover a template that would guide me through all my stories. One of the books has this subtitle: “How to build short stories and novels that don’t sag, fizzle, or trail off in scraps of frustrated revision–and how to rescue stories that do.”

!!!!

Nobody can instruct you so that you – or I – can’t fail. Nobody can do the work for you. I don’t remember this as a bad book. It just promised much too much. We all have to hack our own way through the thicket of plot. We learn by practice.

Now here’s a writing book I definitely do like: What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter. I’m not sure about it for kids below high school age. Have a parent or a librarian advise you. What If? has a few chapters on plot and some interesting exercises.

One of its ideas is that plot arises out of character and situation. For example, in “The Little Engine That Could” the little engine faces a huge hill and a string of train cars that have to reach their destination. In the classic, the engine is plucky, determined, and all heart. But what if the engine’s favorite conductor just lost her job, and the engine is ticked off? Or what if it’s winter, and the engine is depressed due to Seasonal Affective Disorder? Where does the plot go? Can you get it back on track (pun intended)? Do you bring in other characters?

Even if you’re a rambling kind of writer, a bit of tension is necessary, whether or not your story comes to a crisis. Think about what interested you originally. What was the spark? Suppose you began with two friends going shopping together, and you wanted to show what they’re like by the way they shop, because you’ve observed yourself shopping and your friends and your family. Or suppose they’re just out for a walk… Or suppose they’re in a field, and they’re both bored. All they’re doing is watching grass grow.

You don’t have to make the earth crack open, revealing a golden stairway to the realm of a lost civilization, for your story to take off. You can put it in flight with the tiniest thing. You can just have one character ask the other, “What are you thinking?” and begin major conflict. After all, how many times have you had thoughts that you do not want to share?

If you feel your story degrading into mush, examine what you’ve got. This means going back into the narrative. Hunt for spots where you can make trouble. You don’t need a grand plan. Just look inside what you’ve written. Twist something small. Drop in a tiny new detail. Make a character angry or unhappy or lonely. Anger can work particularly well because it’s lively. Create a problem in which action is forced on one of your characters. Bring in a new character who will shake things up. You can write notes to explore the possibilities. If you get stuck, go back to your old story for more bits you can use.

Here are two prompts from this post:

Rewrite the story of “The Little Engine That Could.” Make it more complex by changing the engine’s character or its situation.

Have one character ask another about his or her thoughts. Create some kind of disaster – interpersonal or global or intergalactic – as a consequence.

Save what you write and have fun!

Rightsizing

Rightsizing

Several weeks ago Asma asked a question related to the length of a piece of writing. She suggested (Asma, please correct me if I got this wrong) that long is daunting. I posted a comment advising her not to worry about length. Good short is as good as good long.

Since then I’ve been thinking about length. Before I’d had anything published, in the mid-1990s when I was working on Ella Enchanted, I was told by my mentor at a conference that my book had better be under two hundred pages, and Ella was longer than that. Maybe that was the rule at the time, but nowadays very long books seem to be fine. Publishers buy them, and they make their way into readers hearts.

The shortest novel for kids that I know of is Sarah Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan, which is sixty-four pages short and won a Newbery award. Of course there is debate about whether it’s a novel or a novella, and I don’t know the answer. I’d guess that you usually need at least 125 pages for a book to be without a doubt a novel.

There is one law about length: Do not pad.

With one exception. If you have a school assignment, like a paper that has to be ten pages long or you will flunk and won’t be able to get into college and will be doomed to a life of drudgery and penury (look it up, kids), and if you do your best, but when you get to page nine-and-a-half, you have exhausted everything you have learned about the subject, then you have my blessing to pad, to string adjectives together and pile on the adverbs, to make your handwriting wide and rounded or to find a font, like this one, that takes up a lot of space. But aside from such an extreme situation, don’t. If your book turns out to be a novella rather than a novel or your short story is super short and yet unfolds fully, celebrate and forget about length.

A truism is that a book (or a story) should be as long as it takes, long enough to tell the tale, and no more. This is less than helpful. “Cinderella,” for example, told as a classic fairy tale, takes up only a few pages. Her story – and most stories – can be summarized in several sentences. Yet I wrote it as a novel, and I found out recently that two more novelized versions have just come out.

When I’m in the midst of writing, I never know how long a book is going to be. More than once I’ve thought I had a trilogy going, and sometimes I’ve worried that my story wasn’t complex enough for a whole book. I even fret that a blog post won’t be long enough to be satisfying.

Satisfaction is the key to length. Your main character shouldn’t solve each of her problems too quickly or your reader will be disappointed. On the other hand, if she tries again and again, and her attempts are similar, the reader may become as frustrated as she is. For instance, I based Cinderellis and the Glass Hill on a fairy tale called “The Princess on the Glass Hill.” The hero of the story has to ride a horse to the top of – you guessed it – a glass hill in order to win the princess. Conveniently, he has tamed three marvelous horses, each of which arrived with a full suit of armor, copper armor, silver, and gold. The horses with the copper armor and silver armor are able to climb partway but fail to make it to the top, but the horse with golden armor pulls off the feat. The reader roots for the hero at each attempt, but doesn’t really want him to make it on the first two tries, because the excitement would be over too soon. Success on the third effort is just right. If there were seventeen horses and seventeen attempts, we would want to take a hammer to the hill.

Three is often a pleasing number, so much so that it’s called “the rule of three.” Cinderella goes to the ball three times. The evil stepmother visits Snow White in the forest three times. The queen guesses Rumpelstiltskin’s name three times.

But, despite the rule, to always create three attempts is formulaic. Sometimes your hero should succeed on his first shot and sometimes on the fifth, and sometimes not at all, at least for the time being. Variety adds richness and interest – and length.

In the upcoming third book about the fairies of Neverland, Gwendolyn, the human character, is searching for the fairies, who are hiding from her. She finds the spot where she thinks they live and speaks to them, but they don’t show themselves. She reveals the gifts she’s brought, which also fails to call them forth, so she looks for a dove who would know where they are, but the dove is hiding too. After wandering to other possible places, she sleeps pathetically alone in the forest. When she wakes up, she returns to the original location, gets angry, and throws a mermaid’s lute. This act brings out a fairy. I count five attempts, the right number in this case.

Later in the story Gwendolyn asks Peter Pan for advice to help her help the fairies. She does this once, and it’s enough.

Prompt: It’s early in your story. Your main character has to find the magic cell phone that will let him start his quest. If you don’t like fantasy, it’s a real cell phone, which he needs so he can reach someone who will give him a clue. The phone is hidden in a public garden. Write his attempts to find the cell phone. Vary the way he tries. Who helps him? Who gets in the way? If you like, turn the exercise into a story. Don’t worry about length. Have fun, and save what you write.

Local talk

On December 2nd April posted this comment: What’s your opinion on placing an emphasis on dialect? For example, Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

What about the words accompanying dialogue? Some people are sticklers for only using “said,” even with questions (instead of “asked”). Others use quite a variety of words to give more… shall we say, “expression” to the dialogue. And I know some don’t care either way, so long as the word isn’t an adverb/ends in “ly.” What say you?

I love Twain, and I adore The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. But Twain, even though his voice is often modern, wrote in a different era. Different conventions applied. I don’t know if anyone today would name a character after a berry, either. Maybe, but the writer would have to have an important reason for doing so.

A writer would also have to have a powerful reason for using dialect, more powerful than simply establishing a regional feeling. Even if you get the dialect exactly right, which is hard, readers are likely to think you didn’t. Speech rings differently for each of us.

You can describe a dialect in narration, and then the reader will know it’s there. If I were introducing a certain species of New York accent (I’m a New Yorker), I might talk about the tortured r and the distorted long i and the attachment of a final g to the next word when that word starts with a vowel, as in Long Gisland. I might even give a sample as I just did and then return to standard English.

Choice of expression also can portray a region. You all is southern and only southern in my experience. Maybe these aren’t New York-isms, but it seems to me I hear Right? and Am I crazy? a lot here. My late friend from Minnesota used to say oofta! frequently. Pay attention to local phrases and use them, but don’t overdo or you’ll shift into parody – unless you have parody in mind.

There are more tools to situate our characters, because locales often live up to type. My books have taken me all over the country. On the streets of San Francisco and nowhere else I have overheard conversations about spirit channeling and fruit fasting. If I’m traveling for a publisher, I’m assigned local media escorts, who take me to schools and bookstores. In LA my escort one time was a starlet, and a car service driver had written a screenplay. When I sign books in southern states the children seem to have three-syllable and hyphenated first names more often than anywhere else. You can use details like these to establish place.

But again, be careful and specific, and use a light touch. We don’t want to alienate readers who actually come from these places. It’s fun – and safe – to adapt these techniques to fantasy, to invent regional characteristics for a fictional world. Make up your own, though. Don’t have your Quachappians saying oofta!

I talk about said and other speech verbs in Writing Magic. I like said because it fades into the background, as does asked. I’m not sure I approve of myself for this, but I use cried a lot. Cried suggests emotional intensity better than yelled, which, to me, is just about volume. I’m fine with speech verbs that convey information, like yelled, shouted, whispered, because I can’t tell a character is doing any of those things unless I’m told. Whispered can be used in a scene where quiet is called for. The word needn’t be repeated, because the reader will assume from then on that everybody is whispering unless told otherwise.

I’m opposed to questioned, exclaimed, snarled, blubbered – because they draw attention to themselves and away from the actual speech. I use blurted sometimes, so I guess I don’t mind it, although if you can convey blurting without actually writing the word, so much the better. I just looked at my latest manuscript and found continued, burst out, called, even squeaked, which I think is okay because the character’s throat was closing on her.

My favorite writing teacher insisted that speech verbs have to involve speech, so it’s wrong to write, She laughed, “That’s funny.” because you can’t laugh words. It should be, She laughed. “That’s funny.” or some other way of putting it. Notice the period rather than the comma after laughed.

About adverbs describing speech, like “That’s awful,” he said emphatically. – I’m sure I’m sometimes guilty of them, and sometimes you need them, but as infrequently as possible.

It’s great not to need speech verbs at all. One way to eliminate them is to break speech up with action like this: “I’m scared.” Sally twisted the ends of her scarf. “Did we step into a horror movie?”

We know Sally is the one talking if she has the paragraph to herself, which is a good way to avoid confusion. Action also lets the reader see what’s going on. It can shed light on a character, too, or heighten tension.

Here’s a prompt: A deli sandwich maker, a retired dress saleswoman, a stay-at-home dad, a college student, a lawyer, and a physical therapist are on a train that gets delayed. One of these characters (or any others you choose) starts a conversation, and the rest join in. Some may speak on cell phones as well. Write down what they say. You may want to try the conversation/debate/argument, whatever it turns into, a few different ways, experimenting with speech verbs, action, and placing the characters regionally. Have fun, and save all the versions.

What’s next?

Erin Edwards asked me to expand on this from my post about revising: “Am I leading the reader along properly so that what happens is neither predictable nor too far fetched to believe?” Erin added, “I think this takes real skill and is ultimately what makes a book satisfying.”

Predictability happens to be timely for me right now. I just (ten minutes ago) emailed my mystery novel to my editor, who hasn’t seen a word of it. So I’m wondering if my villain is going to be instantly obvious.

Of course I want his or her identity to be a surprise, but I’m willing to put up with other writers’ predictability in some cases. I’m a great fan of the Adrian Monk TV series, for example, although sometimes I can spot the villain as soon as I lay eyes on him, before the plot has even been laid out. I’m okay with that because I’m there for the laughs and the poignancy of Monk’s sad life.

Readers of my fiction come to it expecting an ending that won’t leave them feeling hopeless. I may write a really sad book one day, and if I do, some people will be disappointed and even angry at me. We go to some books, especially series books, craving predictability. We want to enjoy again what pleased us before. There’s some of that pleasure in rereading books we love.

For tellers of old tales, like me, the story’s ending is known; what’s unknown is how the ending is achieved.

Total unpredictability may be randomness or experimental literature, not my thing but maybe yours. I’ve read that there are just a handful of fundamental plot lines, which writers recycle endlessly, dressing them up in exotic new costumes. I agree.

Having admitted this, there’s still predictability that’s too predictable for my taste, especially sentimental predictability: ghosts who can’t go to their final reward unless some romantic problem is resolved; children who are given up as uneducable until a young idealistic teacher comes along; a super-intelligent life form bent on wiping out humankind because of our base nature. And so on.

A few years ago I read a YA (young adult) book by an author I admire. I liked the book, but I saw the story’s major revelation coming from miles away, and I didn’t like that. I complained to a friend, who loved the book. She said young readers wouldn’t guess the truth, because they wouldn’t have encountered this plot twist before. Maybe she was right, but I didn’t agree. If we’re setting up a shock for the reader, we should aim it at everyone.

How to work within the inevitability of predictability and create the unexpected? Here are some ideas:

Drop in a clue that excites expectation and then go another way. I managed to do this in a scene in The Two Princesses of Bamarre. There are monsters in the kingdom of Bamarre, specters among them. Specters, in my conception of them, can assume any shape and even create fake landscapes. My heroine Addie is on a quest for the cure to the Gray Death. She’s been befriended by Rhys, a sorcerer in training. At this point in the story Rhys is away at a fantasy version of a training program. He’s promised to come to Addie when he gets a break, so when a specter shows up in Rhys’s form, the reader doesn’t catch on. Then I have the real Rhys arrive too and I hope I fool the reader into not knowing which is which. This legerdemain (look it up, kids) is one of my favorite bits of my writing in any of my books.

Surprise yourself. If you outline, be loose as you lay out the story. If you just write without an outline, hack away in semi-darkness. If you know your destination, don’t take the freeway. Explore the back roads. Visit landmarks that are off the beaten track. Ask yourself as you write, Is there another way to get where I’m going?

When you finish your first draft, and if you’re worried about predictability, take a look at how you figured out your plot. Can you scramble some of the steps that led to the ending?

Ask your characters what they want to do in a situation. You can interview them in writing. Ask them to consider their options.

Make lists. I love lists. When you’re at a plot juncture, make a list of what could come next. Don’t close down the list when you come to the first thing that will work. Twelve possibilities is a nice number, and eight of them can be stupid. Let the stupid ones have their moment. Elaborate on the ones that appeal to you, without deciding. A good possibility can generate more lists. Let them roll out.

Stay away from easy morals, and don’t highlight them. Let the reader draw his own conclusions. Some may object to moral ambiguity, especially for children, but grays make a story more complex and less ordinary.

If you’re in a critique group, ask your writer buddies if your story is predictable. Or show your story to someone you trust. Do not describe the plot and ask if it’s predictable. That question cannot be answered apart from the writing. The story may sound unoriginal and still be full of surprises.

Life itself is both predictable and unpredictable. Giant panda bears are unlikely to march into your bedroom tomorrow morning, but you could get an unexpected insult or an unexpected compliment; disaster could befall you or delight. So here is the difference between fiction and life, which has troubled philosophers through the millennia: In fiction, giant panda bears can crop up anywhere.