Talking talk

Before I get to Hope M’s posted comment about dialogue, I want to mention what I heard on the radio recently in an interview with Madeleine Albright. I’m always on the alert – when I remember – for verbal tics, the phrases people repeat unawares that give a clue to their souls. Madeleine Albright had a telling one. Often, she began an anecdote by saying, “I have to tell you.” This from a former Secretary of State! How many times did she really have to tell a head of state something, and how many times was she unable to say what she wanted to? So, to psychoanalyze her without a license, this oddly candid expression migrated into her ordinary speech.

It’s marvelous when we can find such a revealing conversational tic for a character.

Here’s Hope M’s topic request: I would like to hear what you have to say about dialogue. Although it comes easily to others it most definitely does not come easily to me! It usually ends up going along the lines of he said…she said…he said and so on…droning on and on until I get bored and delete it all.

I’m not sure this is a dialogue problem. The problem may be telling a story entirely in action or in just action and thoughts so that dialogue becomes inessential.

For example, two friends are getting dressed together for a party. One of them, Merry, wants to look particularly great because she’s been teased at school for her lack of style. She tries on one thing after another and is convinced everything looks awful. Her friend, Lara, on the other hand, isn’t thinking about anything except the argument she just had with her father. Lara puts on whatever and sits on the bed, staring into space. The reader, since this is told from a third-person POV, has witnessed both the teasing and the argument with the father and is waiting to see what happens at the party. The conversation that goes on between the friends is polite and inconsequential, because each one has her mind on something else.

That’s okay. In this instance you might keep the dialogue minimal. Or you could go the other way. Merry could ask Lara’s opinion about one outfit after another. Lara could be a polite, supportive friend until she snaps. She says something mean, like, “You’re so insecure it’s ridiculous.” Merry answers with, “You’re so selfish it’s incredible.” They start to get into it just when Merry’s mom knocks on the bedroom door and says it’s time to leave. The argument is unresolved. Both girls have to go to the party bearing the weight of it, and the reader has another reason to worry.

Dialogue that’s working for the story is unlikely to bore you or anyone.

When introducing a character I want to make an impression, often even with minor characters who may have only a few lines. Dialogue, action, physical description, and, depending on POV, thoughts are the major tools for introducing a character. When you’re presenting him for the first time, think about what he can say and what the reader will get from it. For example, in Fairest the Snow White character, Aza, has two brothers who don’t come into the story much, but I wanted to distinguish them, so I made the older brother Yarry blunt. He says whatever he thinks with no tactful coating. If everybody is tiptoeing around a subject, Yarry goes straight at it. He’s the first to say that Aza is ugly. Obviously, he says this in words, dialogue.

Dialogue can move the plot along. In Fairest again, Aza discovers that she’s going to the royal wedding. The revelation comes through dialogue while she’s helping a duchess dress:

“Have you grown taller? I believe you’ve surpassed Ethele.”
“Your skirt next, Your Grace?”
She looked at me appraisingly. “Ethele’s gowns would fit you.”
Occasionally guests gave cast-off clothing to Mother. Dame Ethele’s gowns were clownish. I demurred. “Thank you, but–”
“Not to keep! To wear to the wedding.”

The most economical way to advance plot is by telling, which can distance the reader. But dialogue is economical too. I convey the information about the wedding in just a few lines. As bonuses we see the duchess being imperious and Aza being clueless; character development is enhanced.

You can create a character who is prone to vacuous chitchat. In life, people who drone on are usually covering something. If you show the reader what your character is covering, even a motor mouth won’t be boring.

When you’re writing a scene with dialogue, think about the goals of each character. Maybe one is probing, the other concealing. Or their goals may not be related. Maybe one is probing and the other is practicing being charming. Doesn’t matter what the goals are. If the dialogue is backed up by motivation, it isn’t likely to be boring either.

Dialogue is great for emotional tension. In the party preparation scene, suppose Merry fears her friend is slipping away from her. When Lara doesn’t show the interest Merry wants, Merry becomes more and more desperate. Lara, on the other hand, still considers Merry her best friend, and wants some attention for herself, but she is absolutely lousy at asking anyone, even a best friend, for help. You may need more than dialogue to convey all this; you may need thoughts and action, too. But the dialogue can be the most powerful.

I love dialogue. When I have characters showing off their natures, I’m enjoying myself so much that I think more is better. Then I have to go back and trim, or even get out my ax. Sometimes dullness is just overload.

Here are three dialogue prompts:

Write a separation scene. Two characters are parting forever or for a long period. Each is important to the other, but not everything about their relationship has been positive.

Write a first-meeting scene in which each character has big expectations for what will result from the encounter.

Write a reunion scene in which each character is burdened by his perspective of the old relationship.

Have fun! Save what you wrote.

Everything Mattering

Two posts ago Kim asked: One question: Do you find it difficult to make everything matter in a story, if you know what I mean? It seems like there’s a lot of pressure on a writer to make everything in a story contribute to the story’s progression through plot, character, etc.

There is more to Kim’s question below, but I’ll talk about this part first. I don’t think every sentence in a story has to pay its dues toward plot or character or setting. Most should, but not all.

For example, you’re introducing a new character who is going to play a minor but noticeable role and is important enough to deserve a name and a description. When you describe him, he needs to fit the story’s environment. If you’re writing a Victorian novel, for example, you wouldn’t give him a Mohawk. Beyond that, feel free. If you want him to resemble your Uncle Bobby, go ahead.

If you’re writing something funny and your reader is laughing her head off, she won’t mind that you’ve wandered a city block from your plot.

When your story problem is established and your reader is worried for the main character, you can take a little time to embroider and have fun. Chances are, you’ll charm your reader. In Ella Enchanted, Ella’s visit with the elves isn’t strictly necessary, but she’s in so much trouble that I could get away with giving her and the reader a break – and for my own pleasure, I could imagine elf society.

We are writers not merely to slave and suffer. Occasionally, we are allowed to enjoy ourselves.

Yes, most of what you write should serve plot or character or setting or mood, and a lot of it should serve more than one. But there are acres of leeway in there. For example, in the mystery that I’m revising one of the main characters is a dragon. Aside from the Komodo dragon in Indonesia and in zoos, I suppose, there are no dragons in real life, but there are many in fiction, and I was free to make up my own. I got to decide how big it is, how hot its fire, what its wings look like, how many teeth it has, even the shape of the teeth. I won’t say what I did, but I could have gone any of dozens of ways. This is the freedom within the rigors of plot and character and so on.

I write plot-driven books, so I always have an eye on plot. I define my characters based on the role I have in mind for them. When they talk I want them to say things that will subtly move the plot along. But I also want them to sound like themselves, in the fashion that I, using my authorial free will and glee, make them sound.

You have authorial free will too.

This is the rest of Kim’s comment: How do you accomplish it all without becoming overwhelmed? Is it mostly done by conscious effort, or have you reached the point where it just happens for the most part?

It isn’t unconscious, but it is automatic by now. I’m always asking myself how a scene contributes to my plot or to developing a character, which will ultimately support my plot. But initially I write a lot that I don’t need. Especially a lot that the reader doesn’t need. Last week I mentioned moving my main character from the back of the castle battlements to the front. I’ve spent a lot of time on movement of characters through castle architecture, like who goes out what door and where the door opens into. I’m not yet sure how much of this a reader has to know, but I have to have the information. Even if most readers won’t be able to tell, I don’t want my characters going through a door that used to go outside and suddenly goes inside. Some reader will make a map and be very disappointed in me. As I keep revising I suspect I’ll wind up cutting and simplifying, but I’ll have the underpinnings correct.

No, I don’t get overwhelmed, for a few reasons. Writing comes mostly from the subconscious, and feeling overwhelmed just gets in the way. That’s one reason. Here’s another: I can always revise. If I don’t see where I’ve gone off the rails on this pass I will get it on the next, or the next, or the next, or the next, as many nexts as I want. This is the last reason: I’ve done it before and it’s worked out. The more you write, the more stories you finish, the less overwhelmable you will be.

My prompt is: Go through one of your stories and add to it. Make the story richer. See what you can put in that your ideal reader – the one who most gets you, who best loves your mind – will adore. Afterward, you can take out what is too too over the top, but let the story sit a little before you apply your knife. Have a blast. Save even the parts you ultimately decide don’t belong.

Ending with self-promotion: If you are in the New York City area on Thursday, December 3rd, I’ll be with a few other kids’ book authors and illustrators at Books of Wonder in Manhattan at 18 West 18th Street from 6:00 to 8:00 pm to celebrate Anita Silvey’s new book, Everything I Need to Know I Learned from a Children’s Book. The other authors and illustrators will be Jon Scieszka, Ann Martin, David Weisner, Wendell Minor, and of course Anita Silvey. We’ll each read from our favorites and then from one of our own books, I think, and then there’ll be time for questions, and after that we’ll sign. If you can come, I would love to meet you if we’ve never met, and to see you if we have.

Do Over

Last week Maggie asked, Do you have any tips on self-editing? Like where to begin? Or a process I should follow?

Self-editing sounds a little punitive to me, like correcting mistakes, so I’m going to call it revision, which seems broader, although correcting mistakes is part of revision. But often I’m expanding or condensing or deepening what I have.

I know of only two absolute rules for revision. One: Always save your earlier versions in case you need to go back. Two: Fix the basics – spelling, usage, and grammar – before sending your work into the world of publishing. If spelling and such aren’t your thing, get help – but try to make them your thing. Neglecting them is like neglecting your teeth, in my opinion.

This post will be about revising after you’ve finished a first draft, but even while you’re writing that draft you can pave the way. Be conscious as you go along of the aspects of your story that are giving you trouble, not in a beating-on-yourself way, but as an aloof scientist who’s collecting data. You can make notes of these aspects to help you later. I put such notes above the first page of my story. When you go back you may discover that what you thought was a problem wasn’t one at all. It’s nice when that happens. But it doesn’t always, and then your notes can be the beginnings of a guide.

When you finish a story, put it aside for a few days at the very least. Oddly enough, the shorter your story, the longer you should let it sit. The idea is to forget it a little so you can come back to it fresh. By the time I finish a novel, I have only a vague memory of the beginning, so a few days’ break is plenty.

Some writers read their first draft through without touching it, just making notes. You can try this and see if you like the method. I jump in and start making changes, and I make little and big alterations as I go.

Much of revising is grunt work, like yesterday for me: I realized that I had crammed too much action into too few hours, and I had to shift time around. Mechanical, but necessary, and it took a whole day in real time.

I go through my story in order, mostly, but I bounce around, too. Something I change may call for corresponding adjustments earlier or later in the narrative, so I make them before I forget.

Revision covers every part of fiction: plot, character, setting, voice, detail. Just thinking about it is daunting. Best not to think, just do. You’re unlikely to catch everything in one run through. I revise my books even when they’re in second-pass galleys. After my editor has edited a manuscript a dozen or more times and the copy editor has had at it half a dozen times, I’m still making changes. If all my books were turned back into manuscripts, I’d definitely do some fixing. The thing is, perfection is unachievable. We do the best we can. This is worth embroidering on a pillow or taping over our desks. Perfect impossible, just the best we can.

Here are some questions you can ask yourself as you move through your work.

Have I caught up all the threads? You may not want to tie up everything, but you want the loose ends to be deliberate. You can leave the reader to wonder if your hero ever reconnects with Sam, his best friend three years ago, but you don’t want to drop Sam because you’ve forgotten all about him. Some threads may be quite minor. For example, in the mystery I’m revising now I came up with an ejaculation for my main character. She says, lambs and calves! – and reveals her farm roots. I need her to use the expression once in a while, not so often that the reader gets irritated, and not so rarely that the reader forgets it.

Are my characters behaving as I’ve set them up to? If there’s a change in behavior, have I explained why? If your main character’s best friend angers easily, and we’ve seen her explode when she thinks a store clerk has an attitude, then we need an explanation if she lets a direct insult slide.

Can I see what’s going on? In a scene I worked on recently, my main character was on the castle battlements and needed to see down to the drawbridge, but I’d put her at the back of the castle, so I had to move her to the right spot.

Am I leading the reader along properly so that what happens is neither predictable nor too farfetched to believe? In my mystery, I want the reader to accept that my villain could have done the heinous deeds but not to see him/her coming.

Are my characters, especially my main character, reacting? If something sad or great or frightening happens, she should show she feels it, through thoughts and physical responses and whatever else is available. In an early draft of Ella Enchanted I neglected to show Ella’s grief when her mother dies. I figured the reader would know, as in, Duh! Of course she’s sad.

Is my main character likeable? (If you want him to be.) I’ve mentioned before that I’ve been having trouble with this. I’ve noticed that I have a tendency, if a disaster befalls another character, to have my main think of the consequences for herself before she reacts with empathy, if she ever gets to the empathy stage at all. I think I do this because the consequences for her are what will move the story forward, but, alas, she comes off as a selfish pig!

Is anyone getting lost in a scene? Suppose your main character’s family is having a meal together, breakfast, dinner, late-night snack, whatever. Say you have Dad, an aunt, an older brother, and baby sister in her high chair. Say the reader knows Dad is quiet because he’s preoccupied with something and the baby doesn’t have many words yet. Older brother, main character, and aunt are having a heated discussion about, say, the best way to apologize. Two pages go by without a peep out of Dad and the baby. The reader will forget they’re there and will get a little jolt if they pipe in. If you need them in the scene, make the reader aware of them occasionally. Have the baby drop her spoon. Have Dad get up for a tea refill.

In brief, a few more questions:

Am I overusing words, repeating sentence structures, starting five paragraphs in a row with I?

Is this scene going on too long?

Have I omitted something important?

Can I give a few characters speech mannerisms that will make them recognizable whenever they open their mouths?

This is not an exhaustive list. Think of your own questions as you take up revision.

I love to revise. It’s my favorite part of writing, because getting the story down is over, and now I’m just polishing. So don’t be hard on yourself. Congratulate yourself for the achievement of finishing and have fun.

Describing description

Before I move on, I’ve thought of a few more things to say about chapters: Although no editor has ever commented on the length of my chapters, I have gotten many edits on the length of scenes, usually that they’re too long. And sometimes I’ve been asked to cut a chapter entirely.

About ending a chapter with a crisis, I’ve been asked by editors sometimes to end with the crisis plus my main character’s reaction. Here’s an example:

Tammo said, “As he was breaking free, he said he wanted to crisp fairies most of all.”
Gwendolyn gripped her branch to keep from falling.

A dragon is the he above who wants to incinerate fairies. I could have ended with “most of all,” but I added Gwendolyn’s reaction. I’m not sure which is better. My editor felt that Gwendolyn wasn’t expressive enough, which is a good reason for the addition.

Closing with the obvious: A book doesn’t have to be organized into chapters. There are epistolary novels (novels in letters), in which the breaks come at the end of each letter. Monster by Walter Dean Myers is written in the form of a screenplay. Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl is diary entries. Some books are a hodgepodge of letters, notes, newspaper articles, journal pages. So far, I haven’t written such a book, but I think an occasional bang at the end of a letter or journal entry has to be good.

That’s it for chapters for now.

After my last post, Dream Creator wrote: Also, I was wondering what you thought about the amount of detail in stories. For example, I can have an awful time describing the scenery and what characters look like, and therefore I use a terribly low amount of detail when I’m writing, but the book I’m writing is in first-person and the heroine is far from eloquent, so would that be okay to get away with? Or should I just insert more detail and practice on getting to the point where using detail is much more of a subconscious act? Or is it up to the author, and either extreme is acceptable as long as it is well written?

Everything is up to you, the author. Please don’t listen to me if what I say doesn’t ring a bell. I’m speaking in generalities and don’t know your story or your voice.

But since you’ve tuned to my station, here are some thoughts. They’re just a bit of the huge topic that detail is, so I’m sure I’ll return to the subject in future posts.

Suppose a main character is in her teacher’s living room for the first time. She says that she feels as if she’s stepped into somebody’s grandmother’s photo album – every bit of cloth has a flower or dozens of flowers on it; chair legs wear skirts, and the bare table legs look disturbingly naked, as if they should at least be wearing socks. As a reader, I don’t need anything more than this. I’m willing to collaborate with the author. I can imagine the wingback chair and the sofa with the cloth coverings over the arms and the embroidered footstool. Another reader will furnish the room in accordance with his idea of cozy or fussy, maybe not a wingback chair and the rest, but a grandfather clock and frilly curtains and a tufted ottoman. Readers don’t need everything, just enough to build on.

In fact, everything is impossible. Years ago I did a detail exercise with the kids I was teaching at the time. I brought in something, a simple object, I don’t remember what. All of us (I did too) examined the thing and tried to write as much as we could think of about it. We did the exercise for half an hour and didn’t run out of purely physical description. You can try this yourself. Pick one of your shirts. Describe it in full, exhaustive detail, without even going into how it came to belong to you and what adventures you’ve had in it. You can do that later, if you want to, and write a poem or story about your shirt. But for now, just the facts. The plain physical description won’t be particularly interesting. It’s just an exercise.

If it takes a boring hour to describe a shirt, how arduous and unnecessary to describe a whole room or a landscape! Your reader needs to feel on solid ground, in a real, even if fantastical, place, but you can achieve that in a few strokes. To get to those few, telling strokes, some writers (like me) have to write a lot and then eliminate.

One purpose of description is to let me see the environment my characters are in. There’s a battle in my not-yet-published Fairies and the Quest for Never Land. I couldn’t write the scene until I could see where the fairies were. It’s a prairie littered with boulders, but that wasn’t enough. I had to establish three landmarks: a pile of rocks, a tree, and a petrified log to be oriented. So first of all, description is for me, to get the movie of the story rolling in my head. After I’ve got it, it’s for the reader, to start the movie in his head.

If you’ve got an inarticulate character on your hands, you still need to show the reader what’s going on, but you have to do it through your character’s eyes and voice. Suppose she’s visiting her uncle who isn’t much of a housekeeper. What would gross her out? Show us that–sight, smell, sound, touch. Maybe she’s inarticulate, but she’s tactile. She touches things to get to know them. What does she touch? Or, what would she think her mother, the uncle’s sister, would most disapprove of? What does she have a reason to notice? Suppose she wants to borrow something that belongs to her uncle. What does she see while she’s looking for it?

Description for its own sake is description dragged in by its left ear. It’s necessary but dull, unless it has a reason to exist. Everything is connected to everything in a story. At its best, description should do double duty and serve character development or plot or voice or humor or feeling or something else I haven’t thought of.

Here’s a prompt: Take one of your characters – doesn’t have to be your main – with you today and tomorrow, wherever you go. What does he notice? What does he react to emotionally? What does he miss? What does he studiously ignore? Write about the experience, and save what you wrote. Have fun!

The End of a Chapter

After my last post, Freak of Nature asked how long a chapter should be and how many chapters a book should have. I wrote back that a book can have any number of chapters, and each one can be almost any length. But I’ve been thinking that there’s more to say on the subject.

As a child I was a major reader, the kind who reads while brushing her teeth. I read anything, no matter how long or short. But after I became a writer I became less of a reader – much less, for a bunch of reasons, like editing as I read and reading books I didn’t like to keep up with children’s lit. Lately I’ve been getting back to pleasure reading, but it’s still not the same as when I was a bookworm.

The result, I think, is that I’m now a reluctant reader. I won’t pick up a long book unless it’s by an author I love or unless someone I trust has sworn it’s a great book. I always check the number of pages before I start reading, and I recheck occasionally as I go along. I look ahead to see how many pages are left in the chapter I’m reading too, and I’m disheartened if the chapter ending is a long way off, even if I’m enjoying the book. I like to see a break coming up.

When I get to the break I’m likely to continue reading if the chapter ends on an exciting note, or if I know an important moment is approaching. But I’m happy for that little breather.

No editor has ever said a word to me about the length of my chapters, maybe because before I send a manuscript in I even the chapters out, a bit. Or maybe editors don’t care. Any editors reading this and care to weigh in?

Ever is an exception to my evening out. In Ever, the chapters pass back and forth between two first-person narrators, chapter length determined by whose perspective predominates at a particular moment. As a result, Ever is my book with both the longest and shortest chapters. For example, while Kezi is in the underworld, Olus, the other POV character has little to do, so his chapters are short and hers long.

But for most of my books, when I’ve finish a few drafts and before my editor sees a word, I page through. If a chapter is shorter than five pages or longer than thirteen, I adjust it. This is just me; I suspect many writers don’t think about chapter length, and I don’t believe book quality is affected. Anybody want to give an opinion?

The fix for a too short chapter isn’t as simple as gluing two chapters together, and the cure for a long one isn’t a quick chop down the middle. There is the very important matter of chapter endings.

A good chapter ending makes the reader want to – have to – keep reading. More than anywhere else in a book, the chapter ending has to compel or invite the reader forward, because that page turn is such an invitation to turn off the flashlight under the covers or to answer all those text messages that have been piling up.

There is one fundamental principle for chapter endings: something should always be amiss. If one problem has been solved, another should rise from the horizon or come forward from the background. (Time out. I stated the above as an absolute, but there are no absolutes. Probably someone somewhere has written an exciting book in which nothing goes wrong. Maybe you have.)

How to achieve those irresistible final lines? I’ve gone through my not-yet-published Fairies and the Quest for Never Land for ways:

A cliff-hanger. A chapter in Fairies ends with my main character, Gwendolyn, falling out of the sky toward a circle of sharks with their mouths open.

But it may be impossible to orchestrate a crisis every seven or so pages. There are other techniques:

A quiet chapter ending. This works only if big trouble is looming. For example, if your main character expects to be humiliated in school the next day, you can end the preceding chapter with her falling asleep after some tossing and turning.

Worry. If your main character, whom the reader cares about, is worried, the reader will worry too. In Fairies, the second chapter ends with Gwendolyn worrying that Peter Pan will forget to come for her. The worries of a secondary sympathetic character also will do. In Fairies, I ended nine out of thirty-two chapters with a worry.

The villain plotting or doing something awful, which is unbeknownst to your main character. Be careful, though. This is possible to show only from an omniscient third-person POV.

The beginning of a major moment. Peter does come for Gwendolyn. I end his arrival chapter at the moment before the two meet.

A single powerful word. Chapter Eight of Fairies ends “Then a new miracle began.” Miracle is the magic word. Of course what follows has to live up to the promise, in this case has to be a miracle, even if a minor one.

An emotional moment. Suppose your main character has just unwittingly insulted a friend. The chapter can end when he’s realized what he’s done, even before the friend has reacted – especially before the friend reacts – because anticipation is a crucial factor in chapter endings.

A surprise. The readers’ suspicions are lulled. Things have been going pretty well. Someone shrieks. End of chapter.

A threat. You can imagine how this would work.

The absolute worst happens. End the chapter. But the absolute worst can’t happen many times in a single book. You can get away with a few absolute worsts, but probably not many, unless you’re writing comedy.

I’m sure there are more terrific ways to end a chapter, and you’ll find ones that particularly suit your book. Be on the lookout for them as you write. Try going through your manuscript-in-progress to check out the endings you already have. See if you can ratchet them up a notch or two if they need it. Save the results, and have fun!

Playing with Blocks

After the post two weeks ago, Debz asked about writer’s block and ways to overcome it. Also, a friend has asked about self-loathing in connection with writer’s block.

Self-loathing first, I always say.

Several months ago I applied for admission to an advanced poetry workshop and sent along six of my poems that I like a lot. I was rejected. The professor takes only ten students. The woman who gave me the bad news said that sixty people had applied, which wasn’t much comfort. Six million applicants would have been comfort, a little.

The rational one percent of my brain told me that this teacher wasn’t right for me, that the rejection was fortunate because I shouldn’t study with someone who didn’t appreciate my work. The rest of me felt bad, and all of me didn’t write a single poem for a month, although I had one bubbling up in me. I certainly wasn’t punishing the teacher, who didn’t care if I never wrote my kind of poems ever again. I was punishing myself for not being good enough. That’s a dose of self-loathing.

Yesterday I wrote a poem, and not a revenge poem either. I’m past the self-loathing for now, although I have set aside a dab of other-loathing for the teacher who rejected me.

Time helped me get past the self-loathing, and understanding what I was doing to myself also helped. Anyway, self-loathing, in my opinion is one of the hardest feelings to bear, much worse than clean, blistering anger. Understanding why I’m mad at myself is usually the cure, but sometimes I just have to tough it out and wait for the spell to pass, which so far it always has.

I have never gotten the kind of writer’s block where I can’t write a word – hope I never do – but I can get stuck in a story and not know where to go next. This can happen when I can’t tell the story I want to tell. For example, in Fairest I wanted a lot of the story to be about the insecure queen, Ivi, and the ways the evil creature in the mirror uses her insecurity to manipulate her. I wanted to show evil at its evilest, at its most insinuating. This Ivi-mirror element made it into the book, but very thinly, nothing like what I had in mind. I couldn’t tell that plot thread fully. Maybe someday I’ll be able to, but probably at that point I’ll be trying to write about something else. I’ve said this before, that ideas are different than words on paper. The story that is possible for me to tell may be very different from the one I want to tell.

The same thing happened with The Two Princesses of Bamarre. I was trying to tell the fairytale “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” but I couldn’t figure it out, and I was stuck and blocked, and it took a long, slow time with lots and lots of notes for me to find the story I could tell.

Writer’s block is like insomnia. It’s your brain that won’t let you write, obviously, and it’s your brain that won’t let you sleep. In insomnia, you’re tired, but your brain refuses to relax. The brain gets just as tense and uncooperative in writer’s block.

I read a great and helpful book about insomnia, not that I have a problem, called The Insomnia Answer by Dr. Paul Glovinsky and Dr. Arthur Spielman. It’s a reassuring book. The good docs take the pressure off, and some of what they say applies to writer’s block, among other things, that a missed night’s sleep is not a tragedy. A day without progress in a story is no tragedy either. Hey, I may have a great writing day and then wind up cutting everything I wrote. I feel better than on a blocked day, but the result is the same.

They advise the frustrated sleeper not to stay in bed indefinitely, but to get up for a while and do something boring, something that won’t be fascinating enough to prevent a return to bed after a while. We frustrated writers need to put in time at our desks, but eventually we need a break too, and a boring break may be just the thing to allow a good idea to surface. Take a walk or a bubble bath, chop vegetables, play solitaire (mystery writer Lawrence Block’s remedy), and let your mind swing free.

The brilliant doctors write about the sleep drive, which will eventually get an insomniac sleeping. There is a writing drive, too, which will at long last overcome the barriers our silly brains throw up. This writing drive is our most important ally. I may sound New Age-ish here, because trust is involved, and mistrust is the enemy. If you are convinced that the block will never crumble, it still will, but it will linger longer than if you know that it is doomed. You gain trust by experience, and maybe, I hope, by trusting me. Take my word for it: Writer’s block will pass.

While you’re in the midst of it, however, be kind to yourself, as if you were a child down with a fever. Don’t yell at yourself. Don’t reduce yourself to tears. Don’t even think the word bootstraps or failure, unless you are taking pleasure in your wallowing. The point is, even in writer’s block, have as much fun as you can.

Whose Eyes? Whose Voice?

After my last post, Kim wrote,

How do you choose the point of view for a particular story, and what, to you, are the pros and cons of 1st person versus 3rd person POV?

My last novel was in the 3rd person, but my work in progress is (currently) in 1st person. I can’t seem to get the voice right–it feels a bit pretentious, to tell the truth, because I’m trying to write a lyrical piece–and I’ve considered going back to the 3rd person. Do certain novels scream a particular POV to you as you’re working on them? I noticed in this post that you bounced around in the POV you chose until you selected the “right” one. How did you know which POV to choose?

I have a chapter about point of view (POV) in Writing Magic. I define it there, but, briefly, the two main POVs are first person and third. In first person, the narrator is a character in the story, usually but not always the main character, and tells the story as I. In third person, the narrator is outside the story and all the character pronouns are he and she. A third-person narrator can be omniscient (all knowing) and can reveal scenes in which the main character is not present; or the third-person narrator can stick to the main character and show only scenes he’s in. It’s also possible to write from a second-person POV (you) or first-person plural POV (we), but these are rare.

In some of my books POV was the major hurdle. I was a long time getting it right in Ever, Fairest, and the final Disney Fairies book, Fairies and the Quest for Never Land, which will be out next June.

Fairest is my best example of POV misery. It’s a retelling of Snow White. Since Snow White bites into a poison apple and is in a coma for a big chunk of the story, I thought I couldn’t tell it from her POV. Initially, I decided to tell it in first person from the POV of a gnome. (The gnomes stand in for the dwarfs in the original fairy tale.) I decided a gnome named zhamM would be madly in love with the Snow White character, Aza. His love would be doomed, however, because he’s a gnome and she’s a human. It would be a tragedy modeled on Cyrano de Bergerac. I wrote 300 pages from zhamM’s POV, while my critique buddy kept scratching her head and telling me something was wrong. Finally I had to admit my choice had been a mistake.

I started over from the POV of the prince and wrote another 300 pages, which weren’t right either. Next I tried third-person omniscient, which I loved. I loved getting into the jealous queen’s head and into the mind of the villain in the magic mirror. However, the story clunked along at the pace of an ancient turtle. It wasn’t working, but, of course, I wrote 300 pages before I faced the truth.

Some scenes remained more or less the same from version to version, so I didn’t have to rewrite every one of those 300 pages each time. But I rewrote a lot. And finally I figured out how to go into Aza’s coma and tell the story from her first-person POV, and I finished the book.

Still, sometimes I wonder: If I had hung in with third person, could I have made it work? Did I abandon it too soon? If I’d continued writing to page 400 or 500, might all have become clear?

The point is that POV can be hard to figure out and may not be possible to decide on in advance. You may have to try telling your story one way and another (and another and another) until you find out. There may be no shortcut for a particular book.

However, when you think about POV, here are a few considerations:

Whose story are you telling? In Ever and in most of my Princess Tales series the story belongs to two main characters. In Ever, I solved the problem by alternating first-person POVs between the two from chapter to chapter. In The Princess Tales, I used an omniscient third-person POV. In the first two Disney Fairies books, the story belongs to a cast of several fairies, and the only choice seemed to be third-person omniscient. Most often, though, my stories belong primarily to one main character, and I tell it in his or her voice.

What seems simplest, most direct, even easiest? I tend to complicate my stories. My Cyrano de Bergerac idea is a good example. Writing is hard enough without setting up roadblocks to make it harder. But simplicity is only one consideration. Making the best book you can is paramount. In The Book Thief, the simplest way to tell the story might have been from Liesel’s POV, but Markus Zusak chose Death. I wonder if he tried other POV characters before arriving at Death.

Are there any plot considerations that prevent the story from being told by a particular character? (Spoiler alert: if you haven’t read The Great Gatsby, I’m about to give something away. You may want to skip ahead.) Maybe F. Scott Fitzgerald didn’t tell Gatsby from Gatsby’s POV solely because Gatsby dies. Maybe he had other reasons as well. A dead main character was not a problem for Alice Sebold in The Lovely Bones, since the main character is writing from an afterlife. (By the way, Gatsby, The Book Thief, and The Lovely Bones are not to be read before high school, I’d guess. Check with a parent or librarian.)

What sort of voice are you looking for? I talk about this a little in Writing Magic. A first person voice needs to reflect the personality of the character. An omniscient narrator can have any sort of voice – old-fashioned, Gothic, Valley Girl, journalistic – and whichever you pick will infuse the entire book. Each voice feels different as you’re writing in it.

Here’s a prompt: Think about the fairy tale “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” one of my favorites. Look it up if you don’t remember it well. My Brothers Grimm version is told in third person, but the reader sees the story mostly through the eyes of the soldier. Try retelling it, or a piece of it, from the POV of various characters and in third person omniscient. See what happens to the story and to you when you switch. Have fun, and save what you write!


After my last post Erin Edwards wrote:

I was thinking some more about this. It is interesting that you don’t do a lot of planning and organizing before you write, because I have found that if I don’t do at least some, I can’t write *anything* that isn’t extremely boring (if I can write anything at all.)
I am beginning to think that what some writers call first drafts and some call outlines look nothing like what I think a rough draft or an outline would look like. I learned a lot once from a conference where an editor showed the steps a manuscript took between submission and the final picture book. I wonder if you would consider showing us the rough draft of a scene and how it developed in the final book?

I asked for clarification, and Erin answered:

What I mean by a rough draft or an outline is what is the first thing you write down about a scene?

Then do you build directly on that? Or just take those ideas and start writing something new on a clean page?

I thought it would be easy to answer Erin’s questions, but when I looked at my notes I founds that my method isn’t methodical. Many many many and more scenes that I start with vanish and new ones take their place. I found an example, but I don’t know how representative it is.

Anyway, I write notes first. Sometimes I write some of the scene in my notes. Then I copy what I’ve written into my manuscript, which is just story, not a mix of story and notes. If I’m beginning a book, I write notes and then, when I figure out my beginning, I write it in a separate document (the clean page). This isn’t particularly the right way, it’s just my method.

The notes and the three fragments below are from my Mesopotamian fantasy Ever. These are my notes for the scene. The words in parentheses are from me now.

Maybe Kezi is there when Father swears oath. Maybe she plans to be there, to have oath carried out on her. Maybe she thinks father wouldn’t carry it out on her. Maybe the 3 of them are there. Maybe mother says she’ll be ok. Maybe mother says, keep everyone from him for three days. Then the oath will have no power, or Kezi knows this. She tries to keep everyone away, but a cousin comes. Kezi saves the cousin.

If Father had sworn that if Mother recovered he would sacrifice a goat, he would have had to do it. He wouldn’t have been able to wait three days and then forget about the oath. But if he swore, for example, that if IL (god whose name changes in each version) gave him a safe sea voyage he would sacrifice the first fish he caught to IL, if he didn’t catch any fish in t first three days, he could eat the fish on the 4th day. If no one congratulated Father (Trails off here, which notes can do.)

This story fragment, the beginning of the oath scene, was written around 3/24/06:

Only IL’s altar flame is steady. I am thrumming with fear. I’m pouring Mother a cup of water. The pitcher isn’t heavy, but I spill water on my hand anyway.
Mother is trembling more than I. Beads of sweat stand out on her forehead, and yet she shivers. Red welts run up her arms.
Father paces. He sits on the divan next to Mother, dries her face with his own sweat cloth. He stands, paces, sits again.
“I don’t want to die, Senat,” Mother tells Father, shaking so hard her voice is staccato. “I wish I could die.” She laughs jerkily, but it is her usual ironic laugh.

In the next version, the POV changes to third person. It was revised before 4/21/06:

Only Anlil’s altar flame is steady. Kezi thrums with fear. She pours her mother a cup of water. The pitcher isn’t heavy, but Kezi spills some of the water anyway.
Merem is trembling more than Kezi is. Beads of sweat stand out on Merem’s forehead, and yet she shivers. Red welts run up her arms.
Senat paces, which frightens Kezi more than anything. Her father is always confident.
“I don’t want to die, Senat,” Merem says, shaking so hard her voice is staccato. “I wish I could die.” She laughs jerkily, but it is her usual ironic laugh.

This is from the copy-edited manuscript, revised in 1/08, but the scene didn’t go directly from the one above to this. There must have been more changes along the way. Notice that the POV has gone back to first person. What you cant tell from this scene, though, is that now there are two first-person narrators. Here it is:

My bones hum with fear. Mati (Mother) didn’t rise from her bed this morning. Pado (Father) and I are with her. She’s shivering with fever and sweating at the same time. She presses one hand into her belly.
Pado paces, which frightens me almost as much as Mati’s fever. He’s always the calm one. An hour ago he sent for an asupu – a physician. Asupus are called when there isn’t much hope.
Admat, the One, the All, pity my pado and me. Let Mati stay with us a little longer. As You wish, so it will be.
There is no sign from Admat. The altar flame is steady. My prayer pulses through my mind, under my other thoughts.

I’m not confident in the usefulness of this example. It’s only one scene, and everybody works differently. My problem is rarely awkward writing; it’s getting the stories and the characters right. I head off in wrong directions and write lovely scenes that I adore and mourn when I have to amputate them. In my last three novels, Ever among them – I may have mentioned this earlier in the blog – I’ve had trouble making my main character likable. A lot of my revising has gone to making her someone a reader can identify with. I don’t think this is an issue, however, in the scene above.

To get a really solid idea of the way I wander around until I get things right, one would have to go through all my drafts. It may be possible actually to do this for an author you love. The Kerlan collection at the University of Minnesota holds drafts of children’s literature and I believe there are other libraries that do the same. I’ve donated to Kerlan, but never enough for a thorough reconstruction.

If you’re in a critique group, you could share notes and outlines with one another. If you’re not, you might ask other writers you know how they revise. And it’s worthwhile to look through your own past work and outlines and notes to understand your personal mysterious process. Have fun!

Tense again

After my last post, Pam wrote this comment: “These all seem like things that you need to plan ahead. How do you organize your stories and plots to make sure these stay consistent?”

Most of my consistency comes from revision. For example, in the mystery I’m working on, I gave the ogre a cat as a pet. Later, the plot demanded that the cat – poof! – become a dog. If you make a change like this, you can stop where you are and go back to the beginning to transform the cat everywhere it appears, not only changing the word, but also the animal’s behavior. Or you can wait until the end and then fix. The advantage of waiting until the end, I’ve recently discovered, is that the dog could later turn into an aardvark or three aardvarks or no pet at all.

As for planning and organizing, I don’t do a lot of either one before I begin writing. I have an idea. I write a few pages of notes and develop an impression, no more than that, of the way I want the story to go. If I’m working from a fairy tale, the fairy tale itself gives me a rough outline. But most fairy tales are only a few pages long and I’m writing a novel, so I have a great deal of improvising ahead.

Let’s revisit the suspense builders of the previous post. If you are coming to my blog for the first time, this new post will make more sense if you read the one before, from October 1st. You don’t need to go further back than that.

1. Time pressure. This could be something I know before I start writing. For example, in Ever I knew from the start that Kezi would believe she had a short life span ahead of her. I took care to remind the reader now and then of her days remaining, but I didn’t have to drop the reminders in very often, because a literal drop-dead-line is potent.

If I were going to title chapters in time intervals, I might start this at the beginning, but I could also do it in revision to give the book a more visible structure.

2. Distance. Ditto.

3. Thoughts. Revealing a character’s thoughts serves many purposes, not simply raising suspense. This does not require planning. You should get in the habit of including your main character’s thoughts – and feelings – as you go along. Not at every turn, but at many turns. Otherwise your character will be a puzzlement to your readers and may even seem flat and robotic.

4. Nonstop action. If I were writing this kind of book I would know it from the start, but I wouldn’t plan each twist and turn. I would look for opportunities as they were presented by setting, dialogue, the nature of the characters – by every story element.

5. Separation from the problem. As you’ve probably discovered, many – maybe most – of the best parts of a story are the result of happy accident. In The Two Princesses of Bamarre I didn’t plan Addie’s separation from her sister as a suspense creator. My story had a sick sister and a healthy sister, who needed to save the sick one. She couldn’t do it by staying at home, and Meryl, the sick sister, was too ill to travel. Voila! Separation, which I made do double duty to raise the suspense.

6. A flaw in your main character. This might have to be planned from the get-go if it’s the engine that drives the story. But, in general, you want your main character to be at least a little flawed, so she can grow in the course of the story and so that the reader can love her. A paragon is hard to warm up to. A small flaw may still give you opportunities for suspenseful moments.

7. A flaw in a secondary character. Again, if this is the thrust of your story, it will help if you know it from the start. However, even if it is the most important thing, it may not begin that way. You may have something entirely different in mind when you stumble across this character, who passes himself off as the brother of the main character’s long-dead father, and – screech, skid around a corner – you discover what you really want to write about. The story continues from there. Don’t let planning get in the way of something wondrous. Serendipity is a writer’s good friend.

Let’s skip the others. I have nothing new to say about them. The degree of planning and organization varies from writer to writer. Some writers work everything out ahead. The wonderful young-adult author Walter Dean Myers once told me that by the time he starts writing he knows how many chapters he will have, the length of each one, and exactly how many sheets of paper to put in his printer.

My jaw hung open.

I’m not capable of this. If you’re not either, you have tools to help you: Jog your memory in your notes or in a separate document of the suspense elements that you want to return to again and again. Be open to the opportunities for suspense that pop up along the way. Take advantage of the accidents that your subconscious tosses you. Even allow your whole plot to be blown apart by some surprise that happens along. Remember to include your character’s or characters’ thoughts. For consistency, revise, revise, revise.

Here’s a fresh prompt on suspense. After I wrote my list of suspense producers last week, I started thinking that just about every situation can cause tension. Here I am, typing at my computer. Suppose the words that are appearing on my screen aren’t the words I’m typing. I would freak out, and a reader probably would too. So the prompt is: As you do whatever you’re doing today, think about how each action (putting on your socks, answering your teacher’s or boss’s questions, passing a store window), or each place (your bedroom, classroom or conference room, a city street) could be suspenseful. At the end of the day or whenever you can, write down the ideas that came to you. Have fun, and save what you write!

Before I go, thanks to everyone who’s posted comments and questions. I love knowing you’re out there, and the questions help me with new posts.

Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!

After my last post, Hope commented in a way that made me think of suspense more than of time, so this new post is about ways to create suspense, eleven ways in no particular order:

1. Time pressure, which I’ve already written about. However, mere time pressure isn’t enough. The reader has to be reminded of it. The deadline, whatever it is, has to loom. You can make it loom in lots of ways: with count-down chapter headings; in scenes that show how unprepared your main character is; in dialogue, when the teacher repeatedly reminds his class of how many days are left until the exams that will determine your main character’s future forever.

2. Distance. Distance can operate a lot like time. Susan, your main character, is traveling toward some critical destination – a long-lost parent, a trial, someone who once hurt Susan. The chapter headings can be miles remaining or train stops to go. The history that makes the destination critical can be told in flashbacks along the way. In this case the destination has to be made to loom.

3. Thoughts. If your main character worries, your reader is likely to worry. The scene in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy, the tin man, and the scarecrow repeat “Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!” is a great example. The words are spoken because it’s a movie, but the refrain could just as well be Dorothy’s terrified thought loop. You don’t want your main character to worry ceaselessly – unless he has an anxiety disorder – but you do want to drop in a few thoughts about possible disaster every so often. As an added benefit, worries are a great way to end a chapter when you don’t have an actual cliffhanger handy.

4. Nonstop action. A crime novel called Slayground by Richard Stark, obviously not for kids, is a book-length chase through an amusement park that has only one exit. I finished the book in a single sitting. I didn’t like the main character much, but I hated the goons who were after him, and I had to find out how and if he escaped. The amusement park setting provided a zillion opportunities for inventive booby traps and narrow escapes.

Your story may not allow the action to be this quick and pounding all the way through, but you may be able to rev things up here and there.

5. Separation from the problem. Suppose your main character, Lucy, has an enemy, and suppose Lucy has to go on a class wilderness week. What is the enemy doing while she’s away? What’s going to greet her on her return? If you aren’t writing in first person, you can even show what Lucy is going to walk into. Of course, the wilderness week has to be interesting too.

In The Two Princesses of Bamarre, the main character, Addie, sets out to find the cure for her sister’s incurable disease. While the two sisters are apart and when Addie is deprived of her magic spyglass, she keeps worrying that her sister’s condition has worsened. I wanted the reader to worry too. What if Meryl has already died?

6. A flaw in your main character. If you’ve seen the Back to the Future movies, Marty cannot tolerate being called a coward and always loses control when he is. The audience cringes, waiting for his next implosion. In Two Princesses again, Addie actually is a coward. The reader fears that she won’t find the courage to help her sister.

7. A flaw in an important secondary character. Suppose your main character’s boyfriend is treacherous or unpredictable – affectionate one minute, hateful the next. His character flaw is a source of tension. Any sort of flaw can work: forgetfulness, clinginess, selfishness, stinginess, and so on, but you have to set it up so that your main character needs something that the flawed character can’t be counted on to supply.

8. Isolation. Your main character can wander away from the other campers in her wilderness group and get lost. Wild cats live in these hills. Their habitat is shrinking, and they’re hungry. In the backwoods there’s no cell phone reception. Aaa!

9. Expectation. Mom expects her son to be a brilliant student in every subject. Or, going the opposite way, Mom expects him always to fall short. His best friend expects him to sacrifice his needs for hers again and again. Or the main character can have hard-to-live-up-to expectations of himself. His efforts to break away from expectation can have your reader chomping on her fingernails.

10. Injustice. Your main character has been falsely accused. She’s misunderstood. She’s been ripped off. In my Dave at Night, Dave’s precious carving of Noah’s ark has been stolen. Much of the book’s tension comes from the search for it and worry about the repercussions that may follow its recovery.

11. A terrible situation, such as slavery, war, an internment camp, abandonment. A story can still go slack in this kind of environment, but the cruel camp guard or hunger or disease can help you get back on track.

It will probably be worthwhile to reread a few books that you couldn’t put down long enough to brush your teeth. Study the author’s suspense techniques and consider how you might apply them to your story.

And here are two prompts:

Think of five more suspense builders. You can remember exciting stories of your own or by other people. Consider how they or you ratcheted up the excitement. Write down the techniques. Or think of new stories and come up with your own fresh builders.

Use one or more of your or my suspense makers in a new story or in a story you’re working on. Have fun and save what you write!