Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Thoughtses!

First off, very exciting! Here’s a link to the beginning of the audio version of Writer to Writer: https://soundcloud.com/harperaudio_us/writertowriter_levine?in=harperaudio_us/sets/harperchildrens-audio. At the end, it moves on to another excerpt from a different book. Of course, you can keep going or stop. Hope you enjoy!

On July 26, 2014, Angie wrote, I have a question that pertains both to dialogue and relationship development. I have two taciturn characters who have to spend quite a bit of time together, and are untrusting of each other for a while. The result is that they are both pretty tight-lipped, which makes the scenes feel boring to me. I am hoping to develop their relationship to the point where they want to confide in one another, but am struggling with making that leap, and with creating some natural, interesting dialogue in the meantime. How do you make characters talk when they simply aren't inclined to do so?

Elisa weighed in with, Thoughtses, thoughtses, use thoughtses! Seriously though, when no one talks, make them THINK. I like it when people have these super sarcastic thoughts about each other without saying anything, its funny. And then one of them can accidentally say a super-sarcastic remark out-loud, and they start a bit of a fight, and then end up laughing (This happens to me and my sister ALL THE TIME!). That breaks the ice pretty well, at least, for me (and my sister).

I’m with Elisa. Thoughtses can wake up our scenes! Especially if our two characters think differently. Since we can never be in anyone else’s mind, we can’t know what’s really going on. Maybe we are all alike when it comes to thinking, but I doubt it.

Let’s start by naming these characters: Victoria and Wilson, and let’s imagine some ways of thinking. I’ll suggest three and you come up with three more:

Digressive. Wilson starts thinking about how dark it’s getting in the forest and how loud Victoria’s footsteps are and segues to thoughts of night in his bedroom at home to memories of a Halloween sleepover to wondering what his friend who was at the sleepover is doing right now.

Methodical. Victoria is planning where to sleep tonight and whether it will be better to lose Wilson or to camp together and how she’s going to feed herself and possibly him and how they can work together without ever talking and how she can protect herself in case he attacks in the middle of the night. And she’s coming up with solutions for all of these.

Irrepressibly happy. Yes, they’re in the middle of a forest. Yes, the king’s evil prime minister is after them. But the air smells so fresh! And listen to the birdsong! Yes, Victoria doesn’t trust Wilson. But he’s a good talker when he talks, which she isn’t, and the gift of gab could come in handy, and the prime minister is the enemy of both of them. And besides, she’s always loved hiking.

Your turn.

Of course, if we’re going to be in the heads of both of them, our POV has to be third-person omniscient. If we’re writing in first person, we have just one mind to work from, which is okay, too. If Victoria is our MC, she can speculate about what Wilson is thinking and what he’s up to.

Each of them also needs to be differently taciturn. Wilson, for example, can be uncommunicative because he’s desperately shy. If we’re not in his mind we can make him blush easily. He can walk behind Victoria on the path, because he’s too unsure of himself to take the lead. But this manifestation of bashfulness can be misinterpreted by Victoria as sneakiness.

Victoria can be silent because she’s a collector of secrets, and she’s learned that she’s more likely to be confided in if she keeps her own conversation to a minimum. Her friends call her The Clam. She’s always been completely trustworthy–although that may change as this tale continues.

There’s opportunity for fun, as each misunderstands what the other is doing. Victoria, for example, can step into a patch of poison ivy simply because she doesn’t see it in the dusk, but Wilson’s interpretation is that she wants to show him how tough she is. If we can arrange matters so that their silence gets them in trouble, that’s even better. Boredom will be banished.

We might introduce another element to create this tension. Suppose the forest is the home of a band of elves, who have been lied to by people in the past. While Wilson is asleep, an elf joins Victoria, who’s guarding the campfire, and asks why she’s in the forest. Uncertain about whether the elves are allies of the evil prime minister, she says that she and Wilson are brother and sister on their way to visit their uncle. When Wilson’s turn to watch comes, Victoria thinks about telling him of the elf’s visit, but she decides the visit is over, so she doesn’t think she needs to and stays silent. The elf returns and talks to Wilson when he’s on watch duty, and he gives a different story. The angry elves capture the two of them and hold them for trial as spies. Each can blame the other, but they’re talking, and–also good–they’re in danger.

Or, Wilson can look up and see a tree tiger, which I just invented, about to pounce on Victoria. He shouts, “Run!” and runs, too. They both live and start talking and planning how they can avoid being taken by surprise.

What will get them talking depends, at least in part, on their characters. If Wilson is digressive in his thinking, he may get so carried away by his thoughts that he forgets where he is and starts thinking out loud. Victoria can say, “What the heck are you going on about?” Not friendly, but they’re talking.

Or methodical Victoria can reach a point in her planning where she needs to share her ideas with Wilson or they won’t work. She’s uneasy, but she speaks.

Here are four prompts:

The elves put them on trial and appoint a lawyer, who has a very hard time with two uncooperative defendants. Write the scene or scenes. Part of the fun may be inventing the elves’ judicial system.

Both Victoria and Wilson are starving. Both are excellent archers, but they’re sure, if they pull out their arrows, the action will be misunderstood. Write this scene.

One of them, you pick which, is actually an agent of the evil prime minister. He or she is quiet, waiting for the other one to say something revealing or to make a fatal mistake. Write the forest crossing.

The two are destined to fall in love. Write their gradual evolution from suspicion to infatuation.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Smile Induction

My best wishes to all of you who are bravely writing away on you NaNoWriMo projects. Hope it’s going along swimmingly!

For any of you in my neck of the woods, I’m going to be part of a kids’ book author panel and then a signing on the evening of Monday, December 8th, from 6:00 to 7:30 at Fox Lane Middle School, 632 South Bedford Road, which is in Bedford, New York. If you can come, I’d love to meet you!

Also, at the suggestion of Lydia S. last week on the blog, we’ve added a new feature right to the right of these words: FOLLOW BY EMAIL, which will let you know about blog updates, if you’d like. Strictly voluntary. Thank you, Lydia S.!

On July 24, 2014, Kenzi Anne wrote, I've noticed that while I'm usually a very goofy, lighthearted person, my stories always end up being dark and fairly heavy. I know I need some humor and comedy in there, but it always sounds forced and unnatural. How do I lighten my stories but still keep them serious?

Elisa suggested, Have there be a character for comic relief, like Razo in the Goose Girl and Enna Burning, both books are by Shannon Hale. (I LOVE[!!!!!!!!!!] Razo.)

And Michelle Dyck weighed in with: I second what Elisa said. :) That, and a bit of sarcasm or even slapstick humor can help.As for humor sounding forced... it might help to show it to another set of eyes and ask for an opinion. And if you know someone witty, he or she could help you out too.

These are great suggestions. Not only Shannon Hale includes humorous characters for comic relief; Shakespeare did it, too. In his tragedies, he gives minor characters entire funny scenes. If it’s good enough for the bard...

You might introduce a character, say Salli, who sees the bright side of everything. Your MC, Carole, takes a drubbing at the hands of a bully. Her nose and cheek are bruised an interesting shade of purple. A dance is coming up the next day, which will also be Carole’s first date with Mark. Salli says, “Wear the blue dress. Blue and purple–very pretty.”

The mood is further lightened if Carole smiles and says, “Mark will know I have good taste.”

Things get worse, since this is a story about bullying. Carole loses a tooth. She’s weeping. Salli says, “Wow, the space is just the size for a straw. Handy.”

Again, it will help if Carole goes along. She says, “You think?" Only it comes out, You zink? She adds, "Oh! I can’t say tee aitch or even tee--” though the words don't come out that way.

Salli, cheerful as ever, says, “It sounds like Transylvanian. A vampire would say that.”

The seriousness of the situation hasn’t changed. The bully is still increasingly dangerous, but the reader enjoys what’s going on more, and he likes these characters better and better. He doesn’t want anything bad to happen to these endearing people.

Salli’s crazy optimism doesn’t pop up unless something bad has happened. When the worst happens, whatever it is, Salli’s consolation is so far-fetched and pathetic, it breaks the reader’s heart even while he’s aware of the humor.

Mishaps, even tragedy, can have a humorous side, usually do in real life. For example, I was a plump child, and once, ice skating on a frozen lake, I fell through after two of my (thinner) friends had skated safely across the same spot. I’d have died if my father hadn’t pulled me out fast, but all I was thinking about was that I was fat and that my friends were more aware of it than ever. The contrast between the seriousness of the situation and the frivolity of my thinking is where the humor lies–but only if I’m aware that my worry is silly and the danger is real. Decades later I reconnected with Michael, one of the friends, and he remembered me falling through the ice. When I told him what I had been worrying about, his jaw dropped. He was a sweet boy, and that never occurred to him.

There’s the scene in Ella Enchanted when the parrot Chock commands Ella to kiss him and then keeps flying away when she tries. It’s funny but also powerful, because it highlights the crazy things the curse forces Ella to do–and she's perfectly aware of this.

So how do we get these deep but humorous moments?

Look for the contrast. Let’s say our villain, the bully, has managed to push Carole into a lake (not frozen). She’s soaked from the waist down and running for her life. What she’s aware of as she runs--one of the things she’s aware of--is that her skirt is clinging and transparent now that it’s wet. She isn’t sure which she hates more, being so afraid, or having her knock-knees revealed as well as the print on her panties: black bunnies leaping across a red background.

This is serious humor, but I love humor that’s silly, too, and I love word play. My Princess Tales books are full of this kind of humor. For example, in The Fairy’s Return, one of my MCs, Robin, loves to pun. They’re groaners, but I enjoy them. Here are three examples:

What's the best food for a dwarf?  Shortbread.
What's a jester's favorite food?  Wry bread.
Why do elves taste delicious?  Because they're brownies.

And Robin’s father is a poet. Here’s one of his poems:

Royalty and commoners must never mix.
Do not forget or you will be in a predicament.

Also a groaner, but I had fun writing it.

I also like writing subtle humor that doesn’t make even me crack a smile, but that causes an interior nod of recognition, a little spark of pleasure. In a poem I wrote this week, I wrote about forgetting things when I went shopping. Then I wondered in the poem if I should list what I forgot, and I wrote, “Lists are good in poems but these aren’t interesting, just soy milk, eggs, and almond butter.”

Do you get it? If not, doesn’t matter. The pleasure is for me and anyone else who notices.

Here are four prompts:

Write the story of Carole and Salli and the bully. His or her target is Carole, and Salli is the eternal optimist.

Write the story of Carole and Salli and the bully, only in this version the funny one is the bully, and this makes him even scarier.

In the version of “The Frog Prince” that I know, the frog turns into a prince, not when the princess kisses him but when she throws him against a wall as hard as she can. This scene is begging for comedic treatment. Write it!

Carole is a punster. The dance date with Mark is handicapped for two reasons: Carole’s face is bruised, and she keeps punning. Decide how Mark handles this and write the scene, including at least five puns.

I listen to a comedy-news quiz on the radio every week. One of the segments, called "Bluff the Listener," presents the contestant with three goofy solutions to a problem, one of which actually happened. The topic might be increasing tourism or winning customer loyalty, but last week it was getting kids to eat their vegetables. Figure out your own wacky solution to this age-old problem, and write a scene in a family in which it plays out for good or ill.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Picky, Picky

In July, this question came from Leah on the website: What is the right kind of details? Which details are important and which not so much?

I talk about this in Writing Magic, so if you have the book you may want to look at Chapters 8 and 20. For now, let’s start with what a detail is, which is slippery, like most matters in writing.

I’d say that a detail is any snippet that conveys information. Sometimes whatever that is may not seem like a detail. Suppose, for example, our MC is Candace whose birthday is today. Her mother comes into her bedroom to wake her up, bearing a big gift-wrapped box. Candace sits up, smiles, and carefully removes the wrapping paper. When she opens the box, she meets her mother’s eyes and says, “Beautiful.”

And the reader sighs with relief and thinks, Whew! Finally.

I’d argue that, if it was set up well, the word beautiful is a detail even though it tells us little about what’s in the box, even though this word is often a generality. The word’s success as a detail depends on what went before. Imagine that Candace’s fourteenth birthday in her world is the day she has her Admission Ceremony, when she becomes a full-fledged member of her clan, but she suffers from self-doubt and a need to be perfect in every circumstance. In the close-knit clan, the mental state of every full member affects the entire community, and the elders, who wouldn’t dream of holding Candace back, are worried that her anxiety will infect everyone. Candace has been working on her serenity, but until now she’s made little progress. However, when she pronounces the box’s contents beautiful, the reader understands that she’s changed profoundly.

If the reader already knows what’s in the box, the effect of the word is further strengthened. It’s the ceremonial robe, and it has a small brown stain in the otherwise creamy linen. The stain was made on purpose to reveal Candace’s frame of mind when she sees it. That she calls it beautiful despite the stain demonstrates that she’s truly ready to become a clan member (or that she’s lost her eyesight! Just kidding.).

On the other hand, if beautiful is pronounced in the first sentence of our story, the reader will have to wait to discover the significance of the word, and if that significance is never demonstrated, then it will remain vague and won’t work as a detail.

When we write, we want to create a movie in our reader’s mind. Part of the movie is established through the scenery, the setting, although we can’t ever describe everything. Even the attempt would exhaust us and bore the reader. We wield an authorial spotlight. When Candace’s mother enters the bedroom, we have to decide what to reveal. Maybe we want to illuminate the box with its star-patterned wrapping paper and the ribbon that curls like confetti, and her mom’s hands on the box, nails neatly trimmed, clear polish, the thumb callus that’s characteristic of her occupation, whatever that is. Or maybe we want to show her mom’s expressive face, where her inner peace combines with pride at her daughter’s accomplishments. Mom’s expression may add to the reader’s worry that Candace will shatter the clan’s calm, regardless of the other benefits her joining will bring. Or maybe we decide to pan across the untidy room, with clothing and books scattered about, reflecting Candace’s emotional state when she finally collapsed into bed at 2:00 AM.

We’re guided in our choice of detail by our need to advance plot and develop our characters. The details that do neither may be unnecessary. Take the gift wrap paper, which may shed light on Candace’s mother’s love for her daughter, but if the reader already knows all about these feelings, this particular detail may not be needed. Secondary considerations can come into play, too. We may decide that the gift wrap detail helps create a mood or establishes the setting. The reader almost certainly doesn’t have to be told what the ceiling looks like or whether the desk lamp uses a seventy-five watt bulb or a sixty–unless either is going to come into our story.

Detail can be presented in dialogue, narration, and thoughts. We’ve seen it operate in dialogue, when Candace says, “Beautiful.” She can say more, too. She can go to the window, pull aside the curtain, and add in a satisfied voice, “Beautiful again. I wanted a sunny day.”

There is a danger in conveying details in dialogue, however. If Candace and her mother discuss something they both know, the dialogue is likely to sound staged. For example, if Candace says, “I hope I don’t trip on the way into the Meeting Chamber,” and her mother answers, “The stairs are very steep,” well, she probably wouldn’t say this, because they both know what the stairs are like. The one she’s really speaking to is the reader, and there are better ways to convey the information: in narration or in thoughts–if the steep stairs are important.

But, aside from that caution, dialogue is a great vehicle for detail, because along with the facts conveyed, the reader also gains insight into the speakers: what they notice and how they express it. Same with details relayed in thoughts. Through what Candace notices, for example, we learn not only the details themselves but also more about her character. Candace, in her nervous state, may be extra aware of things that appear threatening. Let’s imagine her in a park with her friend Vergil. She notices how thick the bushes are and thinks that a whole battalion of soldiers could hide behind them. He says something about the family of ducks and ducklings in the pond. She answers, “They’re cute. I didn’t even see them.” The reader gets a double dose of information.

A few words about sensory details: We tend to neglect senses other than sight. Sound, smell, touch, and sometimes taste are also important. Imagine a seaside scene, for example. It won’t come alive without the sound of the surf, the wind on our MC’s cheek, the weight of the sun in summer, the smell of the ocean. If our MC sticks out her tongue, she can taste the salt.

Here are four prompts:

Look around the room you’re in right now. Pick a detail-- anything--and make it the focus of a story.

Use the sixty-watt light bulb as the central detail in a story. Write the story.

In Fairest I gave the magic mirror in “Snow White” a back story. Write a version of “Sleeping Beauty” in which the spinning wheel that delivers the soporific pricking is more than it seems.

Write Candace’s Admission Ceremony, and make it the beginning of your story, so it does not go well. Deliver details through dialogue, thoughts, and narration. Include all sorts of sensory detail.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Mama Mia!

For those of you who are about to dive into NaNoWriMo, all my best wishes! Don’t forget to eat and sleep and read this blog!

I look forward to meeting one--carpelibris!--or more of you this Saturday in Albany, New York!

Now, imagine fanfare, a trumpet blowing, confetti. See it first here: the final cover for Stolen Magic!



I think it's appealing and inviting, just what we want a cover to be.

And on to the post. Two related questions came in over the summer. On July 23, 2014, Elisa wrote, What do you do with parents? I mean, I write from the perspective of children and teens--for the most part--and the things the children/teens do in books these days (you know, saving the world, etc.) are not even remotely possible, most of the time. Kids don't do that sort of stuff. Plus, since technically our brains haven't fully developed yet, we wouldn't have the wisdom to deal with such situations and would need a wise and generally smart, fairly all-knowing adult with us to deal with such things. (Because, from the kid's perspective, grown-ups know EVERYTHING! Seriously, until I was eleven, I REALLY thought my parents knew basically everything!) So, what to do with the parents, or even grown-ups in general? I know lots of kids in books are orphans, but that's really cliche, and don't even get me started on having the kids save the parents, nuh-uh, not even gonna go there, it's WAY too twisted. I want my parents to be good parents while, at the same time, their kids can do some fairly cool stuff. I can only have them be invalids so often. How do I keep them involved, and not interfering too much, while being really solidly good (also smart, I hate it when the kid is brilliant but the parents are idiots, in real life, the kid would probably be pretty dumb too, you learn from your parents after all) parents?

And on August 19, 2014, Elsabet wrote, What do I do with parents? I really don't like how uninvolved parents are in literature these days. They've all but disappeared! I want the parents in my stories actually BEING there. But them being there means they would cut into the adventures of my kid/teen MCs. How do I work around or through this? Actually, how to I work WITH this? I don't want the parents to be dumb, or dead, or evil, and I don't want the kids to be bratty or sneaky. Kids lying to the parents is just not an option. For one, most parents would see through the lies - therefor making it unrealistic - and secondly, I don't want sneaky, scheming, lying "heroes" in my stories. I don't like glorifying ugliness. Upon occasion I will have one (scheming liar) as an MC, but only to bring a point across, or to create a contrast. So how do I work this?

The questions generated this from Kenzi Anne: I've discovered it's easier to write parents when they have an actual character. I read the "How To Train Your Dragon" book series a while ago (they are adorable) and I love how the parents are unique individuals with their own characteristics and personalities that actually add to the story-- rather than just being the "mom" or the "dad"--there for reality's sake but not really the story's. Giving them hopes, dreams, fears, etc. like you would for a main or secondary character might help you to incorporate them better into the story and the plot :). Parents are people too!

Elsabet added: I would like to be accurate, authentic and realistic. Actually, the real reason I want to write parents like this, is because I am modeling them somewhat off of my own parents. My parents are the very best, they really are. And they would do anything to protect their children. They would never be foolish enough to get caught in a situation where they both needed to be rescued at the same time, and if, by some completely random circumstance and several simultaneous coincidences of astronomical oddness they did happen to get into such a situation, they would never wish, or even allow us (their kids) to come to harm by trying to rescue them.

This topic really is a problem for us writers. One of the first laws of children’s literature is that the young protagonist has to solve the story. The parents can’t do the solving or the saving. Readers are asked to suspend their disbelief, big time. Okay, maybe it’s unlikely that a parent needs rescuing or that so many MCs are orphans or that a teen can save the world, but the reader knows this is fiction and, if the story grabs him, he’s happy to go along.

We counter the unlikeliness by developing our situation realistically. Maybe we set the story in a dangerous part of the world. If we’re writing fantasy, we can establish that kidnapping or hostage-taking is common in this kingdom. Then we create a detailed setting and complicated characters and believable characters. The reader may think, I’ve read other stories of parents who need rescuing, but this one is pretty exciting and I’ve never seen it done exactly this way before. And he keeps turning pages. As I think I’ve said before here, there aren’t many possible plots; complete originality is either unattainable or incomprehensible. Even Shakespeare recycled stories from older sources. We take the common elements and reshape them in uncommon ways.

You who know my books are well aware that the only parents I allow on the scene are, ahem, defective. The good ones are either dead or out of the way. In The Wish, Wilma’s mom. a single parent is terrific, but most of the action takes place where she isn’t. So that’s one way--and the true-to-life way I got to be the MC in my own actual growing up. My parents were good people, but they were offstage when I faced most of my challenges: at school, at a friend’s house, in the local park, at the skating rink, in one of the museums I could walk to or get to by bus or subway. (I was lucky to grow up in New York City, where I didn’t need an adult to drive me places.) You can give your characters public transportation to help separate them from grownups.

In Fairest, Aza’s adoptive parents are super caring, but they can’t leave their inn to travel with her to Oscaro’s castle. In their defense, they have no way to anticipate the danger that their daughter will encounter, and, besides, she’s under the protection of a duchess. In A Tale of Two Castles, Elodie’s loving parents send her off to become an apprentice, unaware that the apprenticeship rules have changed. So that’s one strategy: the young MC leaves home for an ordinary reason, but extraordinary things happen, and she can’t go back. The parents, if they know, are wringing their hands, but they can’t rescue their child.

I’m as guilty as any other kids’ book writer of killing off good parents, and I agree that parental mortality is much more common in fiction than out of it, which is fortunate. However, there are orphans in the world. Dave, the orphan I write about in Dave at Night, is loosely based on my father, whose mother died of childbirth complications a few months after having him, and whose father died of (ugh! and gasp!) gangrene when he was about six. I hasten to add that they died a hundred years ago, and medicine has come a long way since then. I doubt that anyone in a developed country dies of gangrene anymore, and death after childbirth is very rare. Interestingly, my father’s stepmother was as bad as Snow White’s. Sometimes life imitates art.

Here are three prompts:

Your MC’s mom sends her to the corner store for a container of milk. Let’s say she goes reluctantly, because she was in the middle of something, and she isn’t pleasant when they part. On the way, or when she gets to the store, something unanticipated and horrifying happens that makes return impossible. Write what happens in a scene or a story or your NaNoWriMo novel.

Your MC, Matthea, has great parents, whom she loves and admires. Whenever she has a problem, she discusses it with them, and they always offer great advice. In this story, the advice is good as usual, but following it never seems to work out as planned. Sometimes Matthea flubs when she acts on it, and sometimes the other person doesn’t react as expected. She returns for more advice, which also backfires. Matthea is in a downward spiral. Write the story.

In the real fairytale, Snow White’s father isn’t around at all. In your version, he is, and he’s kind, and he doesn’t want bad things to happen to his daughter. Include him in the story, but make it all go wrong anyway.

Have fun, and save what you write!