Flashing back

On February 25, 2010, Jill wrote, My big problem is when my character did something important that I want the people reading to know all about.  I tried starting the story with a flashback but realized what I want them to know didn’t happen in one event. It happened over many years.  I tried skipping year to year in the flash back but I got confused just trying to write it.  I really just want to tell them what happened and move on but it’s hard to get out all the information with out making it seem like two books in one.  Any suggestions?

The kingdom of Bamarre in my The Two Princesses of Bamarre is plagued by monsters and by a terrible disease called the Gray Death.  Events in the story are connected to events during the founding of the kingdom centuries ago.  I brought the back story into the current one with an epic poem that winds through the book.  The poem, which was written in the earlier time, is known by everyone.  People quote from it, perform scenes from it, refer to it.  My main character often thinks about it.

The Blind Assassin (high school level and above) by Margaret Atwood alternates in sections between the past and the present.  In the course of the book, the back story catches up.  The past is told in third person, the present in first.  The reader quickly adjusts to the shifts, cued by the change in point of view.  The story is a sort of mystery, and the time jumps contribute to the puzzle.  It’s a brilliant accomplishment.

Margaret Atwood introduces her chapters in the past with old newspaper clippings.  You too can come up with devices not merely to start the switch, but to reveal the events themselves.  For example, you can alternate the current story with old diary entries or old letters, or you can invent fictionalized newspaper articles too.

Or you can think up other ways to bring the past into the present .  Suppose, for instance, that your main character is haunted by a memory of being cruel to her brother only a few hours before he was killed in a car accident or abducted by aliens or morphed into an alien himself, and suppose she discusses what she did with a counselor or her new college roommate, someone who doesn’t know her past.  This can become a boring recitation, however, unless you do something to bring in tension, like maybe the confidant has a hidden connection to the brother.

If the back actions were performed by your main character (not carried out before her birth or beyond her knowledge), you can start with the first act and keep going, no need for flashbacks or anything else.  I’ve begun several of my books with the birth of my main character–Ella Enchanted, Fairest, and Princess Sonora and the Long Sleep, to name a few.  The story then jumps forward through selected episodes, sometimes years apart, to the present where most of the action takes place.  This is a straightforward way to do it and the least likely to cause reader confusion.  My favorite writing teacher, years ago, disliked flashbacks.  I have nothing against them, but if there is no reason not to write in sequence from past to present, this is the way I would go.

If you use them, flashbacks can be hard to pull off because you’re wrenching the reader away from the ongoing story.  Then, you want to excite his interest inside the flashback, but you don’t want him to fall so much in love with it that he doesn’t want to return to the present.  Quick flashback scenes often succeed, since the reader comes to understand that the digression will be short.

The television series Lost – High school level?  Middle school?  I’m not sure, so check with an adult – is wild with its scene switches.  The story jumps in and out of flashbacks, and then, to further complicate matters, characters become unglued in time.   The viewer learns to expect this madness and adapts.  I don’t always admire the show, but I enjoy the craziness, and it’s worth studying how the endless complications are handled.

Of course television is a different medium.  Information can be conveyed instantly.  The viewer has only to see a telephone with a cord to know that she’s in the past.  We writers have to reveal the switch in words, which takes longer.

The Long View by Elizabeth Jane Howard (high school and up) and the Stephen Sondheim musical Merrily We Roll Along tell their stories backwards.  The novel starts with a marriage that has fallen painfully apart and progresses  back in time to the first meeting of the couple and their early love.  The musical begins with the misery of a man who has misused his artistic gifts and ends with his hopeful college graduation.  Both are tragic.  I don’t know if it’s possible to tell a happy story this way.

Saying It Out Loud (middle school and up), which I think I’ve mentioned before, by my friend Joan Abelove, moves effortlessly through time.  Joan uses flashbacks a lot, so you may want to read the book to see how she does it.

Many actors develop back stories for their roles.  They may flesh out a childhood, adolescence, family, school that never come into the actual play or movie.  But the back story adds depth to the performance.  The audience picks up on the complexity.  So it’s a good thing to have earlier events influencing the current story. 
Whatever method you use, sympathetic or fascinating characters in a difficult situation will lure your reader in and keep him in.  If he is hooked, cares about your main character, roots for her, he will keep reading and may love the all the track switches you conduct him through.

You can try any of the techniques I mentioned: flashbacks, diaries, letters, newspaper clippings, backward telling, an epic poem, dialogue in a counseling session.  And here are three specific prompts:

•    Make up a back story for a character in a book you love.  If you love Pride and Prejudice (as I do), for example, make up a back story for Wickham or Mr. Collins or Charlotte beyond what Jane Austen provides.

•    Make up a back story for one of your own minor characters.  Figure out a way to introduce a bit of it into your story.

•    Develop a flashback scene in a story you’re working on now or an old story.  Keep it in if you like it.  Otherwise take it out.

Have fun and save what you write!

Pleased to Meet You, Fantasy World

Signing alert: I’ll be signing books, along with many other terrific kids book writers, this Saturday, May 1st, in Hudson, NY, from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm.  If you’re in the vicinity and can come, I would love to see you.  Here’s a link to the event:  http://www.hudsonchildrensbookfestival.com/.

On February 24, 2010 Silver the Wanderer wrote, Do you have any advice for writing about fantasy worlds (environment, culture, etc.) without creating a massive “information dump”?

I once googled “rules for writing fantasy” for a talk I was going to give.  The results were interesting, and I suggest you try it.  You’ll find a lot of ideas from a lot of viewpoints.  One person felt that a writer shouldn’t write about a world without knowing its entire history, culture, economy, judicial system –  more than I know about the real world I actually live in!  This person thought an information dump was unobjectionable, in fact essential.

I disagree, unless this is the sort of book you enjoy reading.  Then it may be the kind of book you should write.  Otherwise, if the economy doesn’t come into your story, the reader doesn’t have be told about it, and you don’t have to invent it.  In fact, if you include unnecessary information, you create pressure on the reader to remember everything and an expectation that it will all be important. What’s more, in creating this useless stuff, you’ll probably make it interesting to keep yourself from going crazy, and then the poor reader will be disappointed when the coinage, silver leaves harvested from a magical and environmentally threatened forest, never shows up again.

Start your fantasy in the ordinary way, with what’s important to the story: character, action, setting, dialogue.  In most cases you want to let the reader know right away that this is fantasy.  In Ella Enchanted, I began with a curse by “that fool of a fairy,” but I didn’t go into what a fairy looked like till page 25.  Initially the reader had to know only that there were fairies.

If there is going to be a plot development later in your story that involves a particular fantasy element, you do need to prepare the reader.  For example, if late in the tale your main character rides a flying horse, you don’t want the reader to see her leap on the horse’s back at the same moment he discovers that there are such horses.

This doesn’t mean you have to plan your whole story out ahead of time.  You yourself may not know about the flying horse until your heroine needs to make a fast getaway.  In that case, you can go back to earlier pages and add references to these creatures.

In The Two Princesses of Bamarre, I needed to bring in the epic poem about the hero Drualt right away, because it was such an important plot thread, but the poem had nothing to do with what was going on in the first pages.  I didn’t want to confuse the reader and make him unsure which way to direct his interest, so I rewrote that beginning dozens of times before I got it right.  You may have to, too.

When you write contemporary realistic fiction, you and your audience have the benefit of shared experience.  Most readers can imagine a school, a city street, a park.  They won’t visualize exactly the school, street, or park in your mind’s eye, but close enough.  In your narrative, you can describe the important landmarks so the reader sees them as you do.

There’s less shared experience in fantasy, but there’s some.  If you’re writing a medieval or Renaissance fantasy, most readers have seen enough movies and TV and read enough books to picture a castle, a princess gown, swordplay.  You don’t have to say that a castle has towers and a moat, but if it lacks one or the other or both, the reader should probably be told.  Also, you need to show the reader the setting, so even if the towers are ordinary, you may want to point them out the first time they come into view.  They may add to the mood or have emotional meaning for your main character, represent home or the enemy, for example.

Ever (for readers age ten and up) is set in two quite different cultures in a fantasy of ancient Mesopotamia, which is less familiar to readers than the Middle Ages.  So I had to show more, but information about the world is still incorporated into the action.  How to do this?  In the second chapter, for example, the mortal girl Kezi is introduced.  A snake is oozing through the house’s courtyard, where Kezi is drawing in clay what will become a design for a rug.  If instead she were chopping vegetables and the house were struck by lightning, the reader wouldn’t have a clue about the historical nature of this fantasy universe.  So consider where you set your action and how you can drop in clues, which the reader will pick up quickly.

Your reader will assume that the rules of our natural world apply to your story unless told otherwise.  You don’t have to mention that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west and the sky is blue.  But if the planet in your story has two suns, the reader must be told.  However, don’t give your planet two suns just for the heck of it.  You need a plot, character, or mood reason.  Simplicity is usually best, and take pity on the poor reader who has a lot to follow.  The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin (middle school and up, I think, but middle schoolers should check with a parent or librarian) is beautifully set on quite a different planet from ours.  You may want to read the book to see a master at work.

Readers should be able to imagine your fantasy elements, see them, hear them, smell them, feel them.  If something is invisible or inaudible, then the other senses should be able to fill in.  This bit of advice, of course, reflects what I like.  I have little patience for silent, invisible force fields crashing into immovable, invisible, imperceptible objects – unless the writer is being funny and I get the joke.

I’m sure I’ve written this on the blog before: Don’t have one character tell another something they both already know just so the reader can find out about it.  For example, Princess Phillippa shouldn’t say to Prince Phillip, “Remember last month when the evil knight visited the castle and used his magic net to kidnap our father the king?”  Prince Phillip, unless he has amnesia, is unlikely to have forgotten the event, and he also knows that the king is his father.

If you have any suggestions for Silver the Wanderer about building fantasy worlds, please jump in.

Here are four prompts:

•    Write a scene in which you introduce a fortune teller and show the reader that his power is real.

•    Begin a story with dialogue among a statue, an elf, and a sorcerer.

•    Write a market scene, and show how commerce is conducted in this world (without going into the entire monetary system).  Make something threatening happen.

•    Start a story with the arrival of a character who is more than he seems.  Show the reader hints of the hidden aspects of this character, but don’t reveal everything.

If you like, keep going with the story.  Have fun, and save what you write!  And I hope to see some of you on Saturday!

The Old Character

On February 22, 2010, Priyanka wrote, …as a young author, how do you convincingly write an older character?

I’m currently working on a story that revolves around three women- a 19 year old born in the US, her 45 year old mother, who immigrated to the US as a newlywed, and her 65 year old grandmother, who has lived in India her whole life but is deeply involved in the lives of her family overseas.

Now, as a nineteen-year-old myself, it’s very easy to get into the mind and thoughts of that character.

However, I immediately run into problems when trying to create a convincing inner voice for both the mother and the grandmother. I’ve attempted to observe my own family and their friends to get a grasp on how they interact with each other and how they see the world, but I always feel so…artificial, I suppose, is the best way of putting it-when I try and write a passage from the perspective of someone so much older than me. I feel almost presumptuous to be making the assumption that I could possibly understand their perspective.

In The Two Princesses of Bamarre, one of the sisters, Addie, is very shy.  Although I’m not off-the-charts outgoing, I’m comfortably sociable.  I didn’t know how to write Addie, so I went too far and made her shyness almost catatonic.  My friend Joan, who is genuinely shy, helped me and pulled me back from the brink of caricature.

So you may benefit from showing the parts of your writing that feel artificial to actual older people.  If you’re reluctant to share with your family, try a teacher, a librarian, a friend’s grandparent.  Also, you probably should approach your character’s age with a light touch, which I failed to do at first.

You certainly don’t want to lapse into stereotype.  Nothing (well, almost nothing) is likely to annoy an older person as much as seeing older characters playing Bingo every evening and taking out their false teeth at night and talking about those gosh-darned newfangled telly phones.  I don’t care for it, and my friend who will turn ninety in July wouldn’t care for it, either.

I’m sixty-two, and, frankly, I could go on beyond the tolerance of anyone under fifty about being this semi-advanced age.  Age is a big part of our lives, no matter how old we are and how old we feel.  Age suffuses work, family, romance, health, even if we’re healthy, as I am.  What we do for most of the day has an age aspect.  When we’re young, we’re in school; older, we’re working or taking care of children; older still, we may be working or retired.

A friend to whom I posed Priyanka’s question said, “Language,” and language is certainly worth thinking about.  I don’t mean the “gosh darned” I mentioned above, but something more subtle.  The “wow” and “out of sight” of my ‘60s adolescence has faded from my conversation, and when I use more current expressions I’m generally being playful and deliberate.  I may say “down with it” or “dude” or “awesome,” but not by accident, so my English is probably a little more standard than it used to be.  I have nothing against “dude” or “go” instead of “say.”  They just don’t bubble out of me.  You can apply this both to dialogue and thought.  I never think, “Dude.”

The next several paragraphs are more my ideas about age than direct writing advice.  I hope some of you reading the post will weigh in with your thoughts to help Priyanka and other young writers.

Viewed optimistically, the human race ages and acquires wisdom as time passes.  I have wisdom that I can’t attribute to age, that has come to me because of advances in knowledge.  For example, when I was younger things like relaxation techniques and meditation were unknown in my circle of friends and family.  I don’t remember any talk about stress, although certainly stress existed.  We’re in a more self-aware age now, and I’m wiser because of it.

An older person is more likely to have experienced loss of a loved one through death, is more likely to have had some health challenges, will certainly have suffered more from “ageism.”  But young people can also be very sick, can have lost someone, can have gone through some other kind of hurtful discrimination.  Each of us – old, middle-aged, young – react to these life events uniquely.  One person will talk about his troubles.  Someone else will hold it all in.  There are complainers and people who rise above circumstances at every age.  The saying, People die as they lived, is also true of aging.  People age as they’ve lived.

I don’t mean we fail to change and grow.  Some of us do, most, I hope.  But even when we do, we don’t disconnect completely from our former selves.  It’s like looking at a family photo album.  You can usually pick your mother out of her kindergarten class, even though she’s much taller now and hardly ever wears pigtails anymore.

This is true of our inner lives, too.  We start an interior monologue as soon as we learn words.  It’s continuous, absorbing new understanding so slowly that we don’t notice the difference.  It’s like seeing someone who’s on a diet every day.  The dieter may be disappointed that his family isn’t commenting much on the change.  It takes a family reunion for a distant cousin to tell him how great he looks.  When my father turned seventy, he commented at how surprised he felt about his age.  Inside, he said, he felt no different.

Naturally, some things are likely to dramatically change an inner life:  dementia; mental illness; a catastrophic event, like surviving being in the World Trade Center on 9/11.  But for most of us, change comes almost imperceptibly.

You can do research.  Read about geriatrics.  There are books about the stages of life.  Try reading a few issues of the magazine that AARP publishes.  Join in activities in which you will be the youngest participant, maybe your mother’s book club.  Visit a kindergarten class and feel yourself the oldest person in the room after the teacher.

Most important, respect your characters, and try not to worry about their age.  A joyous character is likely to stay joyous, and a whiner is likely to go on whining.  Write them as you see them – joyous, whining, brilliant, stupid, selfless, selfish – and as they feel to you on the inside.  Put it down, and you can go back later to fine tune.

This prompt is to write about an extended family’s a move to a new home.  You can write about moving day or packing up or the moment the decision to move is made.  Write the move separately in first person from each of the perspectives below.  Be sure to include the characters’ thoughts.  When you’re done, if you like, weave them together into a story.

•    The thirteen-year-old son.

•    The seventeen-year-old daughter.

•    The four-year-old daughter or son.  In my opinion, this is the hardest (maybe impossible) to get right, because there is so much a young child doesn’t understand and is likely to interpret unexpectedly.

•    The mother or father in her or his forties.

•    The grandmother in her sixties.

•    The great-grandfather in his eighties.

For extra credit, now go back and make one of the characters blind.  Put another one in a wheelchair.

Have fun!  Save what you write!


On February 21, 2010, Mary wrote, …I’m having title trouble. Last year, we had to write a fully fledged book for a contest at school.  Mine was probably the longest and was 12 pages long, typed. I came up with a cute title, but now that I’m revising it, I’m not sure it fits….  I’m halfway done with my second draft and it’s 21 pages long, and much less whimsical than my title. I’m sort of attached to the title, it’s what I’ve called my story from the very beginning, almost a year ago. I don’t really want to change it, but I feel that I have to. The title doesn’t represent the main idea any more, but I don’t know how to fix it. Any ideas?

In Writing Magic there’s a chapter called “The Right Moniker” that talks about book titles as well as about naming characters, so you may want to take a look at that.

The first title of Ella Enchanted was Charmont and Ella, because I originally thought that Char was going to be as important a character as Ella.  When I realized he wouldn’t be, I shortened the title to Ella, but when the book was accepted for publication, my editor didn’t think that title good enough, so I was asked to come up with a list of alternative titles.  One of the titles I thought of was Spellbound, which I still like.  It’s also the title of a movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock.  Another title I submitted was Enchanted Ella.  My editor switched the words around, and the book had a title.

The title of the third book in the Disney Fairies series (to be released in June) is Fairies and the Quest for Never Land, which is okay, but not my favorite of the titles I came up with, which I had to agree were far too long.  They would have taken up the whole cover, leaving no room for art.

But sometimes a long title is a plus.  I’m thinking of The Curious incident of the Dog in the Night-Time or From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.

Actually, I’m in title trouble right now.  The fantasy mystery I’ve been telling you about has no title.  All along I called it A Mansioner’s Tale, which has not met with my publisher’s approval.

Here are some ideas I’ve considered for this book and for others that may help you find your own titles :

The main character’s name may be enough.  Think of Heidi and Peter Pan.  Or you can use more than one name, as I tried with Charmont and Ella.  Or you can make the name part of the title, as in another “Cinderella” variant, Just Ella.

A location can be a title.  Think of Wuthering Heights.  The location can be combined with the main character’s name, as in one of my childhood favorites, Anne of Green Gables.

You can list words and phrases that reflect the nature of your story.  My novel Ever has this kind of title.  If none of the words and phrases is right, go to a thesaurus and look for synonyms of the words.  One may be your title.

If you are retelling a fairy tale, your title can come from the original.  Most people can guess that my Princess Tale called Princess Sonora and the Long Sleep is based on “Sleeping Beauty.”  Beauty by Robin McKinley and Beast by Donna Jo Napoli are both versions of “Beauty and the Beast.”

I haven’t tried this, but I’m going to when I get home (I’m on a train to New York City):  I’m going to look at titles in my bookshelves, not to use one of them, but for ideas.  Likewise, I’ll look at our collection of DVDs and CDs.

Alliteration can help make a title sing, such as The Wind in the Willows or Ella Enchanted.  So keep alliteration in mind in your title search.

Sometimes a book grows into its title.  I’m not sure The Two Princesses of Bamarre is the best I could have done, although I thought it was at the time.  Still, the book has had that title for so long that by now it fits.

As you know, notes are always part of my process.  I write down the possibilities and think about them and try to conjure up some more.

When Mary wrote that her title is now too whimsical for her story, she was definitely on the right track.  You want the title to reflect the mood of your work.  Not only the mood, but also the genre and the age group it’s intended for.  For example, Enigma reflects the mystery in my book, but the title is too serious, too thriller-ish.  The Case of… can be a good title for a whodunit, but probably not for a fantasy whodunit set in the Middle Ages, which mine is.

If your story is going to be published, you don’t have only yourself and your audience to please.  The publisher has to be happy too, and the publisher is happy when you present a title that its sales people think will sell.  The sales force has experience and should be heeded, but, of course, no one can predict with certainty what will take off, and a strong story is the most important factor of all.  (And a good cover. A book can fail because of the wrong cover.)

Here are two prompts:

•    Go back to three stories you’ve already found titles for and think of four new titles for each one.  Use the methods I suggest above and any others you think of.  You may come up with a better title or decide in the end that you like the original one best, but you’ll have had the experience of exploring, if you’ve never approached titles this way.

•    Try to come up with the title for my mystery.  If you suggest a title that becomes the title, I will acknowledge your contribution in print in the book itself.  This is probably a one-week deal, because the publisher is getting impatient.  Maybe the challenge is impossible, because I can’t give away the whole story, but here’s a little bit to go on:  Elodie, age twelve, arrives in the town of Two Castles.  Her parents have sent her off alone to be apprenticed to a weaver, but that doesn’t work out, and she is on her own.  She is a talented mansioner (an actor).  The most important characters are:  Elodie; the dragon, Masteress Meenore (not a he or a she, but an IT); and the ogre, Count Jonty Um.  The story is a mystery.  The mood is upbeat, happy, humorous, and it’s written for kids from eight to fourteen.  HarperCollins would like a one-word title, but I have proposed longer ones, and I will continue to.  The people there don’t want the word ogre or dragon in the title.  I’ve decided not to tell you the myriad titles that have been rejected because I don’t want to send your minds down any particular path.  I hope you can think of something.  If you do, post it (one or more) as a comment.  Otherwise the book may have a cover and no title!  Good luck to you and me!

Have fun, and save your titles!


On February 19, 2010 Katie wrote, …how do you get… ideas? I really like to write, but I can never think of anything good to write about. How do you come up with such good ideas?
In Writing Magic there’s a chapter called “Eureka!” about getting ideas.  You may want to read that as well as this post.

In my opinion, the most important word in Katie’s question is good, which is a stifling word, especially when you’re in the idea stage.  My definition of a good idea is an idea that makes me think of more ideas.  It may feel stupid, for example, to write a story about a girl with an enormous left thumb.  So you abandon the idea and feel hopeless about ideas.  But suppose you don’t abandon that thumb and let your mind roam.  What would happen if you yourself had a big thumb?  Would you keep injuring it because it gets in the way?  Might you spend a lot of time in the nurse’s office at school?  And in the nurse’s office might you discover a boy who’s there almost constantly, a boy who’s been seen by hardly any other of the students?  What’s he like?  Why is he always sick?  This line of thought could get you started on a story.

Or suppose the thumb belongs to your main character.  It’s a family trait that has skipped five generations.  The last one to have the thumb was a pirate who was hanged, and the queen herself came to the hanging.  But there’s a family legend that someone else was executed in his place, and he’s still sailing the high seas.

Or suppose the big thumb hurts at particular times–during family arguments or before earthquakes or whenever a political figure anywhere in the world is about to be assassinated.

If you decide too soon that an idea is rotten, you lose the chance to hop on its back and fly to all the follow-up ideas.  So I say relax.  When you’re fooling around with ideas, nothing is at stake but some thinking time.

Ideas come to you for a reason, often a reason you (and I) aren’t aware of.  Whatever the idea is, stupid or not, it has meaning.  You don’t ever have to find out what that meaning is, just know that it’s there and try not to judge your idea, because it’s part of you.  Conceivably it’s the goofy part, but goofy is playful, and playful is good.

Suppose you really are dreadful at coming up with initiating ideas, the ones that start a story.  Well, you can borrow someone else’s idea.  This is not theft.  As Maybeawriter commented on the last post, nobody owns an idea.  It’s the expression of an idea that becomes the writer’s intellectual property.  If you want to write about a maiden who’s strangely obedient, feel free.

Copyright law is complicated.  If you write about a character named Ella who is cursed with obedience by a fairy named Lucinda, you may be poaching on my work.  But just the bare bones idea is yours for the taking.  If the story you’re thinking about is very old, you can even borrow the characters including their names.  If you want to call a character Hansel or Gretel, you can.

People have built on stories forever.  Shakespeare did it.  The playwright George Bernard Shaw did it.  I do it (to put myself in exalted company) when I adapt fairy tales for my own use.

Once you pick up an established idea, obviously you have to make it your own, which calls for secondary ideas.  Even a short story needs lots of ideas.  Where is your story going to go?  What characters do you need to take it there?  What obstacles can you throw up to make it hard to reach the ending?  Staying with a goofy idea, you may want goofy obstacles and goofy characters.  The ideas in my series The Princess Tales are mostly goofy.  Goofy, not bad, not stupid.

Without drawing on a particular story, you can ask yourself the kind of story you want to tell:  fantasy, historical, romance, contemporary, mystery, whatever.  Write down your answer or answers.  Think about subcategories.  For example, if you love mysteries, do you especially enjoy the historical ones or the contemporary?  Hard-boiled or soft?  Do you like the emphasis to be on the puzzle or on the action?  Speculate about how you might write that kind of story, where it would take place, who would be in it.  Write notes.

Before I started my mystery novel, I remembered how much I loved the Nero Wolfe series (okay for middle school and above and maybe below, I think, but check with a parent or a librarian.  If you want to build up your vocabulary, these books are great.)  My favorite aspect of the series was the relationship between Nero Wolfe and his faithful assistant, Archie Goodwin.  (We named our first dog Archie.)  I wanted to do something similar, create a detecting duo, in my case a girl and a dragon.

For what to do when no ideas come, when you are utterly empty of ideas, try notes.  If idea emptiness describes you, look at the chapter in Writing Magic, because I have a bunch of suggestions there, which I don’t want to repeat. 

Here are a few idea-priming prompts:

•    Pick an object, something in your house, anything, the stove, your violin, your uncle’s needlepoint.  Separate it in your mind from its real history and invent a history for it.  Think of the drama, the tragedy, the comedy that went into its creation, its passage from owner to owner, its effect on the lives of its owners.  Write a story about it.

•    Pick an emotion:  anger, joy, sadness, fear.  Remember the last time you felt that emotion or you watched someone else experience it.  Now move that feeling to a new setting.  Suppose your brother was mad at you for hogging the computer.  Put a character who stands in for him on a rowboat, and make him be the one who wants to row.  What happens?  Or move him to archery practice in Sherwood Forest, and he thinks it’s his turn next.  Think of situations that have built-in tension (possible drowning, arrow wounds).

    If the emotion you pick is joy, you need to make the feeling short-lived.  What will destroy your character’s happiness?

•    Pick two characters from stories you know and put them together in a tight situation, a sinking ship, for example.  Rapunzel and Cinderella.  Captain Hook and the witch from “Hansel and Gretel.”  Jack from “Jack in the Beanstalk” and Snow White.  What would they make of each other?  Would they understand each other?   How can you make them join forces?

Have fun, and save what you write!

New Dimensions

On February 4, 2010, Jaime wrote, …I really need to learn how to make my characters more dimensional.

I worry about this too.  I know writers – some of you may be among them – who can take their characters with them to pick out gift wrapping paper and know exactly which pattern each character will select.  This is admirable, but I can’t do it.  I can guess for a few of my characters.  Wilma, for example, in The Wish loves dogs, so if there’s gift-wrap with dogs on it, that’s what she’ll choose.  On the other hand, she’s considerate, so she might forego dogs for something the gift recipient would want.

See?  I don’t know for sure.

I’m particularly uncertain about my characters near the beginning of a book when we haven’t been together for very long.  They haven’t gone through many situations yet.  I haven’t seen their reactions or dreamed up reactions for them.  I’m feeling my way.  How will Patrick (invented right now) react to losing the allowance money he’s been saving for a year?  I think about his possible responses, list several, consider their impact on my story, pick one, and keep going.  Later, what he did about the lost money may give me a clue to how he’ll behave when he has an important exam coming up.  I already know that he saved for a year, so he’s a preparer.  But his previous preparation did him no good, so maybe he’ll decide to wing the test.  Or he may do something entirely different, which I discover through notes.

The point is not to feel you’ve failed if you haven’t mined the depths of your characters’ characters right away.

When I was very little,  two or three years old, my mother took me to a university for some kind of intelligence test.  I’m not sure why, but I suspect I wasn’t talking as fluently as my older sister had at the same age.  I think I remember the event because my mother made me promise not to tell my father.  I have a few vivid memories of it.  The examiner, a friendly man, asked me what a puddle was, and I knew but couldn’t find the words to explain – I hadn’t yet learned concavity.  I smiled at him and probably shrugged.  Inside I felt frustrated and foolish.  Afterward, he told my mother (in my presence) that he was concerned at the beginning but then I improved.  I think he wound up saying that I was normal.  On our way home, I remember having the adult and forgiving thought that of course my mother needed me to take the test.  I was new, and she hadn’t figured me out yet.

The same goes for our characters, who are new to us, and it takes a while to get to know them and figure them out.  In Writing Magic, in the chapter called “Character Helper,” there’s a questionnaire that can help you round out your characters.  It asks basic questions about the character and also questions that call for some digging.  Some may never come up in your story.  Your character may be a medieval peasant before pockets or purses or backpacks were invented.  She certainly doesn’t have her own bedroom.  You can answer the question anyway or adapt it to suit your needs.  If she has no backpack, she may still collect things and hide them in a secret place or in a sack that she keeps with her always.

Most often I use the questionnaire, not when I’m thinking up the character in the first place, but later, when I’m in trouble, when the character is as opaque to me as the bottom of a frying pan.  As I answer the questions, traits come to me.  Ah.  Patrick is freaked out by people with loud voices.  He doesn’t like to be asked to explain his actions; he wants to be trusted.  He loves to whistle.  Now I’m getting a better idea of him.

The writer’s best tools for creating layered characters are feelings and thoughts.  Let’s make Patrick a minor character this time.  He’s a friend of our main character, Louisa, and he’s been hurt by another character, physically or emotionally.  How does Louisa feel about this?  Pure sympathy?  Does she cry?  Or chew the inside of her cheek?  Does she tell anyone?  Does she feel the hurt as if it had happened to her?  Does she want to take revenge for her friend?  Or does she see both sides?  Does she guess how Patrick contributed to the hurt?  Does she want him to learn a lesson?  Does she want to be the person to explain the lesson?

If you show Louisa’s thoughts and feelings she’ll become more real to you and the reader.  Her thoughts and feelings may not be saintly even if she’s a good person.  She may be prone to envy or to criticize or to deny unwelcome emotions.  If her reactions are genuine, the reader is likely to find himself in her.  Then the reader will collaborate with you in endowing her with complexity.

You can try throwing your main character into a new setting or introducing a new character.  Stirring things up may bring out aspects of your character that you haven’t seen before.  Give Louisa a peculiar new teacher.  Send her on a camping trip.

Here are a couple of character-development prompts.  To do them, use a character in a story you’re working on or invent a new character.

  •  Your main character has been insulted in any way you choose by someone he (or she) thinks is on his side, and the insult comes out of the blue.  What does he feel?  How does he express the feeling?  What does he think?  Does he keep his thoughts to himself?  How does he interact with the person who delivered the insult?
  • Your main character is traveling alone for the first time.  Make up the circumstances that occasion the trip.  How does she (or he) get ready?  What are her thoughts and feelings about it?
  • Take Patrick’s problem.  Your main character has lost (through carelessness or theft or whatever you like) his stash of cash.  What does he do?  How does he think and feel?
Have fun!  Save what you wrote.

Artistic Freedom

On February 4, 2010, April asked, Have you ever had an idea for a story that you love (and love its characters) but were too embarrassed to tell it? Perhaps something that’s terribly violent, or overly mushy, or focuses on a topic that you find fascinating but you’re afraid of being made fun of for it.

If you have, what did you do? Leave it? Change it? Tell it anyway?

I have a story that’s been rolling around in my brain for about 10 years that I *love* but have never put down on paper. It’s really romantic, and I’m afraid of what my friends and family would think if I let them read it. (Hearing all the bashing of the “Twilight” series only intensifies my embarrassment.)

Then, on February 17, April added this related question:  On a different note, I have another question—though it ties into my “embarrassed” question I asked the other week: What if you want to write a story where the main characters have a belief (moral, ethic, religious… whatever) that is very different than yours? I’m a Christian, and I worry about the reaction I’d get, both from Christians and non-Christians, if I wrote a story where the main characters clearly do NOT believe what I do, and that in their story that’s fine (vs. by the end they’ve been “fixed” to believe what I do). I hope that question makes sense.

Taking the first question first, a possible reason for not telling a story you want to tell is if telling it will hurt someone.  Years ago, I was asked to contribute to an anthology of memoir pieces about grandmothers.  Since my father was an orphan (family history that I fictionalized in Dave at Night), I had only one grandmother, and I hated her.  She had died years before, but my uncle was still alive, and I didn’t want to upset or embarrass him, so I talked to him about the project.  He said I could go ahead.

If he’d preferred I not write the story I wouldn’t have, at least not during his lifetime.  However, I’m not sure I would always feel bound by this self-imposed restriction.  If there were a story I felt I had to tell, that was very important to me, I might warn the person who might be hurt and tell it anyway.  Or, if it were going to be published in something the person would be unlikely to see, I might take the craven course and say nothing.

As for romance writing, there is romance in most of my books.  In Ella Enchanted and Ever, love is a major thread.  In literature and life, romance is an eternal theme.  At every stage in life, loving and being loved are huge.  So I think there is no shame in writing romance.  I have read and enjoyed romance novels, and if you do it well, you will be contributing to the genre.

As for shame, I can think of two possibilities, and you can do both.  Of course I don’t know your friends and family, but you can tell them that a romance is what you want to write next and see what happens.  The response may be different from what you expect, and it is likely to vary from person to person.  If you are made to feel bad you might reveal that you are a little bit fragile on the subject and you would like support and not ridicule or criticism.

And – or – you can adopt a pseudonym.  If you like, you can inhabit the pseudonym.  Ivorie Moonstar is writing this story, not April, and Ivorie is totally into romance, the romancier the better.  You can keep Ivorie your secret or you can share her.

The thing about writing is that it should always be about the writing.  Short of violating our core beliefs – you won’t tie up your children to make time to write, and you won’t rob a bank so you can quit your day job to write – we writers need to carve out intellectual and emotional space.  It may be that not writing the romance is clotting up your other writing.  Once it’s written, you may find a surge of creativity that takes you to new and surprising places.

So I say, go for it.

Now for the second question, which is also about artistic freedom.  Whenever we can pull it off, it is great, marvelous, and magnificent to invent complex characters with their own interior lives and even their own belief systems and to not judge them.  If they come to life and play out their conflicts on the page, the writer is doing good work.  I don’t always achieve this.  I’m not sure I ever do in a full way, but I value it.  I’m aiming for it.

Take Peter Pan, for example.  In the original novel by James M. Barrie, and not in any other version of the story that I know of, Peter, in addition to being brave and good-hearted, is vain, despotic, and entirely self-centered.  Barrie lets him be and still makes the reader love him.  It’s quite a feat.

One of my favorite characters that I’ve written is Vollys, the dragon in The Two Princesses of Bamarre.  She’s evil, but she’s also complicated and lonely.  Some readers wish I had made her become good in the course of the story, but if I had, I would have taken away her essence, and she would have diminished.

There’s also Wilma, the main character in The Wish, who wants desperately to be popular, not a particularly worthy or self-respecting goal.  But it is what she craves, and I decided to go with that.  She gets reformed a degree or two by the end of the book, but there’s no one-eighty.  She’s still a girl who is over-eager to be liked.  One of Wilma’s friends is a supremely judgmental character, who isn’t all bad.  I don’t change her.

On the other hand, I haven’t so far managed to have humans kill other humans in any of my books.  I may someday.  I have nothing against murder in books or movies, but I haven’t been able to commit it.

Writing for me is a largely subconscious process.  My perspective creeps in no matter what I do.  Inevitably everyone’s does.  If you can develop characters who are unlike you, whose actions may be unpalatable to you, and if you can treat them with sympathy, this is a tribute to the largeness of your nature.

But, you may be thinking, if you write compassionately about a bully, for example, then real bullies may feel even freer to behave badly.  I don’t think so.  A real bully who is a complex person (and a reader) is likely to react in any of the ways people do:  be unaffected, understand something about himself or herself, experience empathy, sympathize with the victim, laugh, cry, stop reading.

I suppose it is possible to write something that will horrify you.  You don’t have to publish it or show it to anyone.  You can revise it, tame it, and bring it back as something that pleases you.

So I say again, go for it.

If you are an adult writing for children – unless you’re aiming for the older end of young adult fiction – you do have to hold back, not so much in subject matter but in the way you handle whatever subject matter you choose.  I don’t generally find this restrictive because I’m naturally drawn to writing for kids.  If you do feel as if you’re in a straightjacket, then children’s literature may not be for you.  Or you may need another outlet as well.  Poetry does that for me.  I’ve written poems that don’t work for kids, that they wouldn’t be interested in, but that satisfy me.

April, I’m grateful for your question.  This is such an important topic.  Alas, no prompt is coming to me, except this general one:  Set your imaginations free.  Write what calls out to you, and save whatever it is.  And have fun!

When a Word

On February 3, 2010 Inkquisitive wrote, I noticed that in Ella Enchanted your characters’ vocabulary isn’t as flowery as what we might find in, say, Shakespeare. I am writing a book for young readers and it is set in a small, fictional kingdom. I tend to think of kingdoms as “way back when” because the monarchy system has fallen out of vogue. So I see my book as a (sort of) period piece and I want the vernacular to reflect that and be believable. However, if this is really going to be a kids’ book, how do I get that “not this day and age” feel without going over the kiddos’ heads? How did you handle this/what was your rationale in Ella?

I used the word wench in Ella Enchanted and Fairest, but I’ve abandoned it, possibly because one of my teachers didn’t like it, possibly because it has a bit of a fake Ye Olde Sweete Shoppe feel to it.  She didn’t like lass either, felt it sounded Scottish.  Lately I’ve substituted girl.  Simple.  Timeless.

Timeless is what I’m going for in my fantasies.  Nobody is going to say LOL or even laugh out loud, dude.  Even the phrase going for sounds too modern in my mind’s ear, although the expression may have been around in Chaucer’s day.

Timeless doesn’t mean formal.  I’m copacetic (not a word I would use in a fantasy fairy tale) with short sentences and even sentence fragments.  I want my characters to feel real, to have thoughts that we can understand today, although most people in actual distant history may not have had inner lives much like ours.  I was particularly aware of this when I wrote Ever, which is set in a fantasy version of ancient Mesopotamia.  I did a fair amount of research, and the lives of people then were vastly different from ours.  If you or I could time travel back then and were imbued with the language, we would still be likely to misunderstand events, actions, meaning, intention at every turn.  Mesopotamian medicine, for example, makes clear that ancient Mesopotamians lacked a modern notion of causality.  On the other hand, they were marvelous mathematicians.

Now take a deep breath and prepare to enter the wonderful world of word geeks.  Some of you may already live here.  I invite all of you to pitch a tent.

When a word seems too modern for a middle ages sort of world, I look it up in the Oxford English Dictionary, the OED, which is expensive but which might be in your local library.  The OED is the authority on etymology, the history of a word.  It provides the first-known written appearance of the word and a selection of later appearances – for each meaning of the word.  I just looked up the word blue and was astonished at all the subtleties of meaning.  Blue as a color first showed up in writing in 1300.  Blue in the sense of feeling unhappy, to my surprise, goes all the way back to 1550.

In an age of general illiteracy, a word may have been used long before anyone wrote it down.  Today, on the other hand, a word could appear in print before anyone spoke it.

I cannot find a really old word for funny.  Ha-ha funny (as opposed to peculiar funny) dates from 1756.  The earliest synonyms for funny began to be used in the sixteenth century, which isn’t yesterday but isn’t medieval either.  I’m sure people had senses of humor then, but whatever they called it isn’t in use anymore, or I missed it.  Of course I use the word funny, and any of the others, because they don’t ring new in my ears.

The OED has come out with a thesaurus, which I’m salivating over, but it’s not in CD form yet.  It’s in two huge volumes, and I’d guess the print is as tiny as bacteria.

If you don’t have easy access to the OED, your ordinary paper dictionary won’t have space for etymology, but there are pretty good free online alternatives.  This site is very good:  http://dictionary.reference.com/.  Once you’re there, ignore the ad and type in the word you’re interested in and you’ll get to a new screen with the definitions.  Below them you’ll find word origins for various meanings of the word.  There’s also this online etymology dictionary:  http://www.etymonline.com/, which doesn’t have every word but is still helpful.

Please don’t think I check the age of every word I use.  I only look when a word feels too recent.  Sometimes I’m right.  Often I’m wrong and astonished.

As far as reading level goes, I don’t worry much about that.  We are doing kids a kindness when we introduce unfamiliar words.  As a child my vocabulary grew through reading (still does).  If I came across a word I didn’t know, I asked a parent or looked it up or, most often, guessed at the meaning through context.  By the time I’d seem a hard word several times in different books I’d sussed out a working meaning.

Of course you don’t want your writing to be impenetrable, so don’t pack your sentences with abstruse, recondite, cryptic, esoteric morphemes!  (I had to go to the dictionary for some of those.)  Anyway, the excitement in a story is more important than vocabulary level.  If your story has hooked your reader, he will persevere even if you lob a few morphemes his way.  Ella Enchanted was recommended as a book for reluctant readers despite its sometimes tough vocabulary.

You also don’t want to throw in anachronistic (not of the time) technology.  Obviously no cell phones in the middle ages.  Messengers undoubtedly, but what else?  For example, when did people start to use carrier pigeons?  I don’t know the answer, but I’m sure I could find out online in a minute or two.

There are daily-life books that cover just about every period.  For my mystery novel, I primarily used three sources:  Life in a Medieval City by Joseph and Frances Gies;  Daily Life in the Middle Ages by Paul B. Newman; Castle by David Macaulay, a kids’ book and the best of the three in its limited topic, the construction and architecture of a thirteenth century castle.  All of these are fine (if not fascinating) for readers from upper elementary on up.  Anything I couldn’t find in my books I supplemented with online searches.  And, since I was writing fantasy and not historical fiction, I felt free to invent when I couldn’t discover a fact or when the fact didn’t please me or suit the story.  Still, it is quite wonderful to have enough of a sense of a long-ago place to be able to imagine dressing for the day, walking down a street, entering a house, shopping at a market.

Here’s a prompt:

Without much research, maybe just online sources, write a scene at a meal that includes family and guests.  Include description and dialogue.  The topic of conversation can be love or politics or duty of a child to a parent or anything else.  Write a scene from two or more of the choices below.  You can introduce fantasy elements, but set the scene during these time periods:

• pre-history or the very beginning of written history;

• ancient Egypt;

• a non-Western society before Europeans arrive;

• before the sixteenth century;

• during the late nineteenth century;

• the 1950s;

• today.

Notice how your language changes as you time travel.  Have fun, and save what you write!


On February 3, 2010, Horsey at Heart wrote, ….I sometimes get so caught up with the idea of publishing someday, or showing my work to others, that I think it needs to be ABSOLUTELY PERFECT, even if it’s only a rough draft. It’s annoying, but I can’t seem to stop feeling that way.

This isn’t a question, but I think perfection is a worthy topic.  Thank you, Horsey at Heart.

Seems to me there are people at each of two ends of a spectrum with everybody else somewhere in the middle.  Some believe that whatever they write is wonderful, no revision needed.  This may be a happy state to live in – unless it covers oceans of unexplored self-doubt – but self-satisfaction rarely produces fine work.

Then there are the tormented writers who are never pleased with their writing.  Their critical selves are always powered up, hovering at the elbows of their creative selves, questioning every word choice, reviling every plot decision.  These poor people have a terrible time producing any quantity of work and then showing it to anyone, much less an editor.

The rest of us are too hard on ourselves sometimes, but we can also applaud when we pull off something difficult.  The truth, which I talk about in Writing Magic and have probably mentioned on the blog as well, is that there is no such thing as a perfect book.  It is as impossible to write a perfect book as it is to be a perfect person.

This is a good analogy, because both writing and living are works in progress.  We don’t throw up our hands and stop trying to be decent people just because we know we can’t be perfect ones.  Living and writing require self-criticism, but in both bashing ourselves over the head for our mistakes is a bad strategy, and so is endlessly excusing ourselves.

I’m feeling a little preachy, but I’m going to keep going.  Suppose I tend to be a tad judgmental, and sometimes I may hurt the feelings of people I love.  What I might do (if it was really me we were talking about here) is to recognize the situations that inspire me to rush to judgment and to breathe deeply, maybe be silent for a while and consider if I could try a different response and what that new response might be.

I’ve mentioned that I’ve had trouble in a few recent books with making my main character likeable, and I’m having exactly that difficulty in the one I’m working on now.  So I’m keeping the issue in mind.  Is Elodie annoying the reader right now? I’m asking myself.

Keeping an issue in mind is different from beating myself up.  I’m not thinking, Darn!  I spoiled her.  I’m only asking and then I’m figuring out how to have her not be irritating.

Some of you have been reading the blog for a while or have read books about writing.  You know yourselves as writers, the terrific things you do automatically and the other things that are a struggle.  Keep the struggle issues in mind as you write, as I do, sort of as a checklist.  You can write them down if that helps you remember.  You can think about them as you write.  But if that chokes off your flow, you can bring them in when you revise.

I was in New York City yesterday, my favorite place to walk.  So I was loping along, thinking of the blog and the topic of perfection, and my mind jumped to the scene I’m writing now, which introduces two hermits.  There have to be hermits in the story, or at this point I think there have to be, and I hadn’t introduced any, so I decided I had to go back and write a hermit scene, but I have pretty good forward momentum going, and I resented backtracking and wanted to rush through the scene.  As I walked I realized I hadn’t shown the reader what the hermits look like, and the scene will be hard to visualize without being able to see them, so I started to think about hermit appearance, which was fun.  I am telling you all this because it’s an example of making your inner critic your collaborator instead of the enemy.

On the other hand, the day before yesterday I looked at some of my favorite of my poems, and I didn’t like a single one.  I wasn’t thinking, How can I make this better?  I was thinking, Yuck!  So I decided it wasn’t a good time to reread my poems.  When I’m feeling hopeless while writing a book, when I’m thinking that it stinks or that I don’t know what I’m doing, I tell myself to shut up and wait till I’m finished.  When a story is in the middle of itself it can go any way in the world.  Judging it then is only detrimental.  And judging in a global way while you’re revising is also detrimental.  But it is useful to think, More dialogue here, or, I can trim this, or Show where everybody is here.

And judging in a global way when you’re all finished is detrimental too.  That’s the time to celebrate.

Here is the mantra:  Specific criticism, good; global criticism, bad.

There are two areas, however, where you want to approach perfection before you show your writing around:  grammar and spelling.  English is tricky, and you may not get absolutely everything right, but try.  Make friends with a usage book.  I use two, Garner’s A Dictionary of Modern American Usage and Fowler’s Modern English Usage, although Fowler’s is more British.  And when you look up a word in the dictionary, be sure to read the usage note if there is one.  A great and fun book on grammar and usage is Woe Is I or for kids, Woe Is I, Jr. by Patricia T. O’Conner.

I promised Pambelina to name some writing books I like.  Most of them deal to some degree with the curse of perfectionism.  I think they’re all okay for a middle school audience.  If you’re younger, check with a parent or librarian.  Every one of these books was instrumental in my development as a writer.  My fave is Writing on Both Sides of the Brain by Henriette Anne Klauser.  The others that I love are:  Bird by Bird by Anne LaMott; Wild Mind and Writing Down the Bones, both by Natalie Goldberg; Spider, Spin Me a Web by Lawrence Block; Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande (old-fashioned in expression but modern in ideas).  For writing poetry, if you’re interested, there are The Teachers and Writers Handbook of Poetic Forms edited by Ron Padgett and The Poet’s Companion by Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux.  This last one is for high school level and above.  If you are writing for children, Barbara Seuling’s How to Write a Children’s Book and Get It Published is excellent.  When I was starting out, I practically wore out the print with my eyes.

No prompt today, except to write – in a positive way – your personal checklist of aspects of storytelling you would like to keep in mind, which you can add to and subtract from as your writing changes.  Have fun!

Special post

This extra post is to announce an appearance in hopes that some of you  reading this are in Connecticut or thereabouts.  I will be speaking and signing at  on Monday, March 15th at 5:30 in the Johnson Room of the library at Eastern Connecticut State University, 83 Windham Street, Willimantic, CT 06226.  My talk is free and open to the public, and, as a teaser, I’m going to reveal a little-known secret about each of my books!  I would LOVE to see you there! If you come, please be sure to introduce yourself.