Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Out With the Old... Or Not

First off, I’ll be signing books from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm on November 1st at the book fair in Albany, NY. The event is at the Silipigno Athletic Facility, 140 Academy Road. If you are going to be in the area, I’d love to meet you.

On to the post. On July 23, 2014 Bibliophile wrote, Does anyone else ever cringe when looking at stuff they wrote ages ago? 

I was rereading the one 'book' I ever finished writing and just started to die inside. The heroine gives in to the hero too easily, there is no real main conflict and the magic I use is not only cliche, but has no rules. The romance in the book is stilted, as is the dialogue. The main characters literally have zero relationships with any of the other characters and since this isn't a post-apocalyptic novel, that is unacceptable and just plain weird. 

The worst part is, I can't bear to take the time and actually rewrite/reread it all the way through. I seem to have lost my love for this book, which is a shame because, like I said, it is the only one I have ever 'finished'. I have tried rewriting dozens of times; I have had conversations with the main character, reimagined the beginning, how they meet, totally reworked the plot. But every time I restart I get lost and annoyed. Is there any way to learn to re-love this story?

Michelle Dyck responded: Yes, I have certainly cringed - numerous times - when rereading old stuff! (I mentioned earlier the book I'm returning to. It's a mess.) The good thing about cringing is that it just goes to show how much you've grown as a writer since then.

Dig deep into the heart of that story. Look past the weaknesses, stiltedness, and clich├ęs, and search for the core. That's probably what inspired you to write it in the first place, and it's what can inspire you again. Remember what you loved about it. There's got to be something that kept you going back when you first drafted it, and even if it's not as sparkly now as it was then, it's something! Try to draw it out. Reimagine what you can do with the story's potential. Maybe that will help you see the problems with the eye of an artist, seeing more than what's there, but what could be.

I’m with Michelle Dyck. I certainly have old writing that now makes me uncomfortable. And even in stories that I do like, that I’m working on now, I make mistakes. Recently, in a poem, I imagined a genie granting me wishes. He was an inquisitive being and unwilling to grant anything unless he was sure it would make me happy. I wished for the ordinary things: health and long life for me and the people (and dog) I love. I admitted these might just keep us alive and well. What would preserve my happiness, I wrote, was for writing to continue to be hard. Poem or no poem, I really believe this. No matter how badly a story or a poem was going, I’d never ask a genie for perfect writing or for writing to be easy. That would be dreadful, to sit down every day and pop out glorious plots and poems, effortlessly. How boring! How could I grow as a writer? I would weep and tear my hair.

I also agree with Michelle Dyck that being able to see the flaws in an old work is a mark of progress.

Here’s what you might try, what any of us can try with a story that no longer pleases us:

Without looking at it, just from memory, list (on paper or in your computer) the elements of the old story that you do like, scenes, bits of dialogue, descriptions. Now, without judgment, think about the main plot line. Write it out in a sentence or a paragraph. Again without judgment, list the main characters and the important secondaries.

Consider what you might do with what you’ve got--what you might do now, using the skills you’ve developed. We can regard this as a new story, but a lot of the work has been done, and how great is that?

Bibliophile says that in the old, despised version the characters didn’t connect with one another. Now is the time to think how they might interact, where they might come into conflict, where they might support each other, how they can contribute to our MC’s struggle and ultimate success or failure.

And the magic. Just because it didn’t have rules before doesn’t mean it can’t have them now. Where should the magic come in, and what might be behind it?

I have a novel, like Bibliophile’s, that I put aside, and, when I tried to read it, about a year ago, I found it so intolerable I had to put it down. It’s called My Future Biography. Just from the title you may be able to guess the problem: my MC, Marita, is obnoxious. She’s full of herself and always sure she’s right. The plot turns on something she does that’s so damaging, it’s impossible to like her. She learns her lesson, but too late for this reader.

At the same time, I like the secondary characters and adore two of them. The almost-boyfriend is utterly delicious. And the beginning of the book is hysterical. And I share some faults with Marita, like that tendency to think I’m always right, so I’m fond of her. But even in my most misguided moments, I would never have done what she does.

Maybe someday I’ll go back to the book. If I do--and thinking about it is getting me interested--I would follow the approach I just outlined. I might tone Marita down a little, and I’d give her other, likable qualities to keep the reader in her corner. And I’d find another way to deliver the lesson so that she doesn’t have to sabotage people who’ve been good to her.


But it’s possible that I couldn’t save the story if I tried, or I couldn’t save it yet, until I grew more as a writer, or until the right idea arrived. There are lots more stories to write, and I should get cracking on them rather than mooning over an old one. If Bibliophile or anyone else is drawn to an old story only because it’s the only one she’s finished, that’s not enough of a reason. If finishing is a goal, which it can be but doesn’t have to be, you might look at my posts on the subject, which you can find by clicking on the label finishing stories, and you may also want to check out my posts on revision.

Here are four prompts:

I love genies! In a takeoff on “The Shoemaker and the Elves,” your MC is a writer who has a genie looking out for her. She finishes the day’s writing with her hero in trouble, but when she wakes up in the morning, her genie has solved everything. The story is finished, typed, and printed out. Write what happens next.

Take it a step further. This over-zealous genie has emailed the manuscript in the middle of the night to five agents, one of whom, over-zealous as well, has already sent it on to three editors, and one of them has made an offer. The problem–-one of the problems--is that your MC wrote only twenty pages of this three-hundred page opus. Your MC is ambitious and eager to get published. Write what happens.

Try the method in this post. Go back to an old story that no longer pleases you. If you can’t bear to read it, just think about it. Remember what you loved about it and use that as the springboard for a new story.

Your MC is a new enrollee at the Hope for the Hapless Improvement School, which promises to turn every student into a heroine. Her failings: messiness, weepiness, awful chapped lips, an uneven growth curve, and an unusual sense of humor. The school has never taken in such a desperate case before, and the head mistress sees the new student as an opportunity to bring fame and fortune to the establishment. Write the chronicle of her school days.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Wednesday, October 1, 2014


First a little lovely news: Writer to Writer, From Think to Ink (based on this blog, for any of you who don't know) has been chosen by the discerning people at the Junior Library Guild as one of their selections when it comes out, and both Publisher's Weekly and Kirkus will soon be giving the book lovely reviews. Publisher's Weekly calls the book "valuable," and Kirkus says it's "comprehensive."

Onto this week's post. On July 23, 2014, Penelope wrote, I've been having a really hard time with my endings. I'm doing a redo of a fairy tale and I'm split on the ending. What I originally had was perfect, I thought. So unbelievably perfect. The element of surprise, the setting, the MC's heroism, everything. It was a Happily Ever After, for sure. But now I'm realizing that it just won't do. It makes everything too easy. I'm thinking of changing it only because it ends too quickly and makes everything too simple. 

So here's my dilemma: Should I mold the story to my satisfying but easy ending? Or should I go with the less appealing alternative which is probably better, but a little anti-climactic?

In reply, Bibliophile suggested, Write both and see which your friends/critique group like better.

I like both parts of Bibliophile’s suggestion. Let’s start with the critique group idea. Some of us are great critics of our own work, but some (me) not so much. We may be too hard on ourselves. Nothing we write is good enough. And some are blind to the flaws in our masterpieces. My guess is that most who read this blog fall into the severe category, because people who think everything they pen is pure gold probably don’t read writing blogs.

So it may be helpful to get another perspective from someone or several someones who can be counted on to be constructive. (We don’t need harsh critics to provide another voice in our heads telling us that what we’ve done is a mess.) If you’re in a critique group, that’s great, and it’s not too much to ask members to read two versions of an ending. After all, you’d do the same for them. You’d be happy to. It’s an interesting dilemma.

If you aren’t in a critique group, you can still get help. A good critic is, first of all, a good reader. You can ask friends who read almost as voraciously as you do, whose taste is similar to yours. You can ask family members who aren’t hyper-critical. You can reach out to a teacher or, especially if you’re home-schooled, a librarian. You can say that you want an opinion about the alternate endings only. If they offer more, you can say no; just that one thing. (If your readers are helpful and you think they may have other things to say that you can use, you can ask for more afterward, but don’t open the floodgates right away.)

If possible, it’s nice to get more than one opinion. If the two agree, that’s pretty solid. If they don’t, you still have fresh perspectives to consider.

But--and this is important--you don’t have to listen to the advice. Just because your critiquers did you a (little) favor, you have no obligation to do what they say. It’s still your story.

On to Bibliophile’s second point, I’m all for trying things more than one way. Writing the ending both ways may make all clear to Penelope, and to all of us when we’re not sure which way to go. And writing both ways may lead us to a third way, which turns out to be the best of all. Or, trying both ways can lead us to a middle ground that satisfies.

In this kind of dilemma, I like to back up and dream up even more than two possibilities. I list all the endings I can think of. Sometimes I run through fairy tale endings and endings of books I love, looking for a key to my story.

I may revisit the problem at the core of my story to help find the ending that fits best. Let’s do this with a couple of examples.

First, we’ll take “Rapunzel,” a fairy tale with, in my opinion, an imperfect ending. Aside from the mystery of why the witch wants a child in the first place, I’m on board with the story almost until the end. The prince is thrown from the tower and Rapunzel is sent far away; that’s fine, just what this witch would do. But then the witch seems to forget about both of them. Rapunzel is reunited with her prince and cures his blindness, and they live happily ever after. Their troubles are over. But the problem at the heart of the story is the witch! The ending should include her, and she doesn’t want Rapunzel or the prince to be happy. She wouldn’t stand by and let them be. According to Wikipedia, there’s a version in which she’s trapped forever in the tower where Rapunzel was imprisoned. Better. But there are other options as well. She could grow and become a better being, or she could be distracted by another baby for her to adopt and behave weirdly to. Or something else. The best ending, I think, would involve Rapunzel and the prince settling matters with the witch: destroying or reforming or distracting her.

Now let’s look at Anne of Green Gables, which, to me, has a perfect ending. *Spoiler Alert!* If you haven’t read Anne of Green Gables and intend to (I recommend you do!), skip this paragraph because I’m going to give the ending away. As I see it, the central problem is that Anne needs a home where she feels at home, an outer home and an inner home. At the beginning she doesn’t feel loved or understood, and she isn’t at ease with herself. By the end she gives up something up that’s important to her, and she does so because she’s achieved self-knowledge and a deep sense of belonging. It feels inevitable. Any other response to Matthew’s death would be wrong.

When Penelope says that her first ending is surprising, I’d call that a plus. We want inevitability and surprise at the same time. Of course, not all surprises are good. Dropping a bomb on our characters may be tempting, but it’s never good. Likewise, bringing in a fairy to solve everybody’s problems.

Inevitability arrives when we solve the main problem. Surprise comes in through the way it’s solved. In a romance, for example, we know that the lovers will be united if the story is happy or separated if it’s tragic. But we don’t know how the two will come together or how they’ll be torn apart. To take another fairy tale, “Beauty and the Beast,” as an example, what seems inevitable as we first encounter the story is that Beauty will finally agree to marry Beast. The surprise is the transformation that follows. So satisfying!

Here are three prompts:

Write a new surprising ending for “Beauty and the Beast.” Yes, there’s a transformation, but it isn’t the one we’re used to.

Write a Rapunzel story and weave the witch into the ending.

The ending of “Rumplestiltskin” is problematic. We’re left with a loveless marriage and a dead imp. I know there are versions that fix this. Write your own. In this case, consider what the problem at the heart of the story is. I don’t think that’s so clear. Could be the imp who desperately wants a child for reasons fair or foul, or an impoverished king, or a neglected girl, whose feelings nobody cares about.

One of the twelve dancing princes is in love with one of the princesses, a love that’s outside the enchantment he’s under. Write the story of their romance. Think of five possible endings and write at least two of them.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

When Bad Things Happen to Good Characters

On July 23, 2014, Lex from Bohemia wrote, I am having a hard time entering into a scene I know will be difficult for my characters. I'm shying away from it because it is what needs to happen, but I'm afraid to do it to my characters. Any thoughts? How do you prepare yourself to write the hard stuff?

J. Garf responded with: I don't know of a way to prepare necessarily, but there's a chapter about it called "Suffer!" in Mrs. Levine's book Writing Magic. In it she talks about how if you're cruel to your characters, your readers will care more about them and how it's going to end. I tend to be a pretty mean writer (I'm sure that if my characters were real people they'd punch me in the face for all the stuff I put them through), but I still have the same problem sometimes. Try finding something about your characters that can make them as annoying as any real person. If you focus on that, it might not be as hard to make them suffer.

I like this, J. Garf! Relieve our own suffering by making our characters irritating! We don’t even have to actually give our MC annoying traits in the story; we can just imagine her whining whenever any little thing goes wrong. Then we can snarl happily, “If you think that was bad, take this!” and drop a boulder on her leg.

As some of you know, I’ve been working on a prequel to The Two Princesses of Bamarre, although I’m putting the work aside now that the fall semester of poetry school has started. *SPOILER ALERT!* A few times, I’ve gone back to Two Princesses to refresh my memory of some of the details. The first time I did this, when I reread the end, much to my surprise, I wept!

*SPOILER ALERT!* continues. When I wrote the book, I could have let Meryl live. But that ending seemed flat. I believed the reader would think, Oh, okay. Ho hum, what should I read next? And I didn’t want to completely kill Meryl off, either. Yes, other citizens of Bamarre would benefit from the cure, but Addie would have failed in her personal quest, so I found a middle ground that came to feel inevitable.

*SPOILER ALERT!* still continues. However, at one time the prospects were good (not any more) for a Two Princesses movie, and a script was written. The producer opposed my ending, so it came out completely happily. The screenwriter did a good job, and it worked. But I still prefer my way.

The point here is that we don’t always have to be totally brutal to our characters. We can make them suffer somewhat. The boulder can land on a toe rather than on our MC’s entire leg.

However, sometimes we do have to be totally cruel. Then we may have to bite down hard on a cloth while we write--to keep from screaming. We may have to take frequent breaks, but it must be done.

In the new book, I recently had to make my MC go through something awful, and at the end of the awful thing I piled on something else just as bad. However, it took me a while to sit down to do it. I had to write notes in which I wondered if I could get away with something less terrible. But when I finally faced the music and started typing, I had fun, because the scene has tons of energy, and I could see it so clearly.

So there’s that comfort. Those moments when everything goes horribly wrong for our beloved MC come to vivid life on the page, and our writing is likely to be our best.

Another *SPOILER ALERT!* This one is for Ella Enchanted. I wrote Ella about six and seven years after my parents died when I was in my late thirties. As I wrote about Ella’s feelings after I killed off her mother, I included some of my emotions about my parents’ deaths. That was a relief, to re-experience a very sad time in a gentle way, cushioned by fiction. Oddly, when I gave my grief to Ella, I felt like I had a companion in it. Comforting.

And that’s another strategy: to use our own experiences in the misery that we inflict on our characters. We heighten the realness of what our characters are going through, and we validate our own history.

We can also comfort ourselves. If we’re not writing a tragedy, we can keep in mind the final victory and the lessons learned. We can think of bad things that have happened to us that turned out well in the long run, that we learned from, that strengthened and shaped us.

In addition, we can talk to our characters in our notes and prepare them for what’s to come, the way a doctor or a dentist does when she’s about to inflict a little pain. “You’ll feel a prick,” she says, and we get ready, and it’s much better than being taken by surprise. Moreover, we may learn something about our characters. These conversations won’t appear in our story, but they can help us deal out the bad stuff. Might go something like this:

Lanie, in a minute I’m going to drop a boulder on your leg. It’s going to be extremely painful.

Why would you do this to me? Do you hate me?

No. Actually, I love you. You’re my favorite character.

I’d hate to be a character you dislike. So why are you doing it?

You’ve used strength and agility in the past to accomplish great things, but you haven’t learned other skills that will bring you the success you want most. Being laid up will force you to engage with the people who are important to your goals. You’ll learn that you have to depend on others. The lesson may hurt more than the boulder. Sorry!

Will I be able to walk and run after I recover?

You’ll have a limp forever.

Silence. Then: But I’ll still be able to throw a spear, right? You won’t mess up my arm or my eyesight?

They’ll be fine.

Okay. Do it already.

Here are four prompts:

Write the conversation with your character about what’s going to happen.

Rewrite the conversation with your character about what’s going to happen and make your character so irritating that you don’t mind doing it!

Your MC’s BFF tells him that she never liked him. Write the scene. Be sure to include your MC’s emotions. If you like, continue and write what comes next.

Your MC’s beloved dog Woof gets the power of speech. He tells your MC that he dislikes her and that everything she does annoys him and always has. At the animal shelter he was hoping to be picked by anybody but her. He’s just too polite to bite. Write the scene. (This may be the worst thing you can do to a character!) Again, include your MC’s feelings, and keep going if you like.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Passivity Solution

This week we start the many questions that came in when I asked for help restocking my list. Thanks again for the big response! The first one came from Michelle Dyck on July 23, 2014: This last week I've been reading over a novel I wrote three years ago. It's book two in a series, and when I wrote it, I thought it was fabulous. Not anymore! The thing is chock full of inconsistencies, plot holes, convenient solutions, and leaps of logic (all of which I plan to fix).But one problem that's bugging me is how passive my two MCs are. In book one, they take charge and go on a quest to save a nation. They're independent and make their own decisions. Circumstances in book two, however, find these teens in the company of several adults. Because my MCs are respectful of authority, they wind up playing follow the leader a lot of the time. And as much as the adults in the group deserve that respect, I don't want my heroes just tagging along for the ride. Any advice?

Let’s assume we need these annoyingly sensible grown-ups in our story, so we can’t kill them off or have them be kidnapped. What are some other possibilities?

Suppose our MCs, Adele and Beau, and three upstanding grownups, Caryn, Dennis, and Enola, are being pursued by the evil queen Francesca and a dozen of her henchpeople, who intend to torture information out of them, because each of the five good guys knows a crucial piece of a whole that will either save or destroy the future child king. The pursuit is taking place in mountainous terrain, and winter is coming on. If our heroes are trapped on this side of the pass, all is lost.

Here are eleven ways to allow the kids to be more active:

We can give them special skills that the adults don’t have, and we can make those skills essential for success. Adele is a skilled mountaineer. Beau is a spelunker, and these mountains are full of caves and tunnels. The others may be great at swordplay or withstanding torture or planning, but when the kids’ skills are called for, the grownups have to stand back.

The teens can discover abilities they didn’t know they had. They're attacked by the bearions from a previous post (a cross between a lion and a bear that carpelibris drew), and Adele turns out to have an uncanny talent for predicting the creatures’ next moves.

Caryn, Dennis, and Enola can regard themselves as teachers, or can actually be teachers. Adele and Beau have to be given a chance to act and make mistakes, so the adults defer to them. Of course, the problems have to be real. When the kids do make mistakes, everyone has to live with the consequences, or the tension is gone.

We can include Adele’s and Beau’s thoughts, which, even if they’re not doing much, will make them seem more active to the reader. They listen to the adults but disagree in their thoughts. And they worry, which always ratchets up suspense. This strategy may not be enough to solve the passivity problem, but it will help.

There can be more than one approach to a crisis. Beau argues his and is convincing. His plan is adopted. The adults take the lead in carrying it out, but he still feels responsible. Or, his plan includes crucial roles for himself and Adele.

The adults deserve respect, but they can’t be perfect, because no one is. Caryn has asthma, which is worsened by altitude. In these mountains she needs the help of the teens to keep up with the others. Dennis is cautious, even in situations that require boldness. Adele discovers that if she’s subtly reassuring, he moves forward. Enola has no sense of direction. When she’s alone with Beau or Adele, the youngster has to keep them from getting lost.

Adele and Beau can each have flaws and virtues that get them into trouble, and getting into trouble isn’t passive. For example, Beau is impulsive, and Adele is loyal. When Beau slips off to try some ill-considered approach to the problem that’s threatening everyone, Adele goes with him. They create a situation that they then have to get themselves out of while the adults are back at the campsite, fast asleep.

We can create a temporary separation. For instance, supplies are low, so Caryn and Dennis go off to hunt, while Enola looks for a source of fresh water. They tell the teens to stay at the campsite. While they’re away, three of Queen Francesca’s people discover the camp and attack. Adele and Beau are on their own.

Size, agility, and youth can make Adele and Beau the best choices for certain actions. They have to do them solo or duo, and the adults have to wait on the sidelines.

We can use simple physical placement. Adele is in the path of a rockslide. Or Queen Francesca’s henchperson sneaks into the camp in the middle of the night. He captures the one on watch, who happens to be Beau.

Queen Francesca, who is not stupid, can realize that the young people are the key to her evil designs. They’re less experienced than the adults and more prone to making mistakes. Moreover, the grownups will be less likely to sacrifice a teen than one of themselves. They may even be foolhardy in their attempts at a rescue. The kids, therefore, are the focus of their attacks. Sometimes the adults save them, but often Adele and Beau have to act for themselves and even make split-second decisions for the whole group.

Naturally, these prompts come from the post:

Write a scene that reveals the child king and shows why he is beloved and why he’s the hope of the kingdom.

Our five heroes are gathered around their campsite at night. They don’t know how far away their pursuit is, although they’re safe for the next few hours. They need to plan their actions after that. Write the dialogue, revealing the characters of each and their strengths and weaknesses. Include the thoughts of the two teens as the discussion progresses.

Queen Francesca and her company are at their own campsite, planning their moves for the next day. Reveal her character and the characters of two important members of her bunch.

Create a scene from one or more (or all!) of the situations in the bullets above. If you like, continue and write the whole story.

Have fun, and save what you write!