Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Setting Wake Up

On August 15, 2014, carpelibris wrote, Anyone have the opposite problem: livening up a story that takes place on a single, rather ordinary location?

Let’s break this into two pieces, the ordinariness and the unmoving-ness of the setting and start with the first.

Pick the most boring, most blah place in your life that you can go to right now. Your assignment, as soon as I tell you to, is to take yourself there.

Right now I’m in my most boring space, a Metro North train rattling toward New York City, where I often write the blog. I’m not talking about my fellow passengers, who often aren’t dull at all, sometimes unfortunately, but the train itself: gray speckled linoleum, tan-gray walls, seats in tan-gray molded plastic with blue upholstery. The intention, I suppose, is to offend no one. The emergency exit signs are always the same, same smudged window, same handicapped and priority seating signs. Soundwise, the same automated station announcements.

But there’s this ad on the wall from Grub Hub (an online restaurant delivery service), which horrifies me: “Say hello to ordering food online, and say goodbye to saying hello into a phone.” As if that were a good thing. I like to talk to people! This would not make me happy! But it isn’t boring.

When you go to your height-of-ordinary place, write a short description of its uninteresting features. Then hunt for at least one unboring thing, maybe a discovery that surprises you. Look, listen, sniff, touch. Take your time, and when you’re finished, come back.

Go there now.

Music to accompany time passing. Imagine a beat that represents the ticking of an analog clock.

Welcome back!

Did you discover anything? My guess is you did. Whether or not you did, you can use other factors to liven up the environment. Your character can have history in this place. One night, on my ride home, my train ran into a tree that had fallen across the tracks. No one was hurt, and I was in the second car, but I walked forward to see improbable branches and part of an actual tree trunk filling half the car.

In our story, our MC can have been injured, and there can have been fatalities. She can remember that the accident took place during a spring storm. A nest of cardinals were in the tree, and she heard silence right after the collision and then the chirping of frightened nestlings. Whenever she’s in the train at night she’s on edge.

People perceive settings differently depending on their personalities. So do our characters. For a bookworm in a library, the walls don’t exist. For a reluctant reader, who’s come for literacy tutoring, the walls may be closing in. The emotion of the character will affect how she sees her environment. We can use that perspective to create interest.

And it’s fun to show the differences in perception. Two friends, Owen and Maya, are describing the local park to Owen’s cousin, Erin, who’s visiting. Maya talks about the tennis courts, the carousel, the picnic tables where people play chess in the summer. Owen goes on and on about the cafĂ© and its fifty ice cream flavors. Erin doesn’t care about any of it. What she wants to know is if kids skateboard there, and if they’re any good.

In a minute, go back to your boring place. When you get there, think about a few of your characters, three, say. What’s the first thing each one would notice? What’s the last thing? If it’s far from the cleanest spot on earth, who would be uncomfortable? Who oblivious? Same with the noise level. Use all your characters’ senses. Would each of them find the boring place boring?

Now go take a look and return.

If all else fails and our real-life dull setting stays dull, we are writing fiction; we can liven it up. Let’s suppose that our story is stuck in an ordinary dining room: oak table, eight chairs, a breakfront where the good china is kept, and a side table, pale blue walls, windows onto a small backward.

Although we could put a shrunken head on the second shelf of the breakfront and make the family dog be a werewolf who’s gotten stuck in wolf form, we don’t want to add anything that will derail our plot, so we won’t go that far. But there probably is a mood that we can heighten with the kind of artwork on the walls, the photographs on the mantel (once we give the room a fireplace). Temperature conveys mood to me, so we can fool around with that. A chilly house may depress Maya. A room that’s too warm may make Owen sleepy and Erin fidgety. Inviting cooking smells will have their own effect; burnt smells or the aroma of disinfectant a different effect. And the Bob Dylan CD that Owen’s father has put on may please some and annoy others.

Suppose our entire story has to take place in this dining room, what to do? I also discuss this topic in my post of August 29, 2012, so you may want to take a look. Be sure to check out the prompts, because they expand on what goes before. And here are some fresh thoughts:

Concentrate on character, especially on the relationships among our characters. The setting may fall away entirely, because it’s always the same, but our characters are constantly butting against each other, forming and breaking alliances.

Bring in fresh characters, so there’s newness.

Visit other places in flashbacks, in the imaginations of our characters, in their dialogue.

Connect to other places by phone, text, email, even television, if we can put a TV in our setting. Depending on genre, telepathy with people in other places might be possible, or communing with spirits, or even creating the illusion of another location.

Here are four prompts!

Describe the dining room or any humdrum setting from the POV of Owen, Maya, and Erin. Through the descriptions, give the reader insight into each personality.

The world outside this dining room is unsafe. You decide how and why. Our three MCs have found sanctuary there and have been together for three hours when someone appears in the window, begging piteously to be let in. Write the story.

The house this dining room is in was built by Owen’s ancestor in 1735. Something that happened (you decide what) in the dining room in 1745 reverberates through the centuries to this day. Write the original event, a scene one hundred years later, a scene shortly after World War II, and the final, contemporary scene.

Reverse the order in the last prompt. Show the contemporary scene first and work backward. Write it so that the reader understands the meaning of the scene in present time only when she reads the earliest one.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Vive la difference!

I’m putting two related questions and accompanying comments together in this post. On August 2, 2014, F wrote, I've found that over the course of all my stories, my characters seem to repeat a lot of the same kind of traits. Whilst I do sometimes feel like they're independent and distinguishable and have their own voices, I feel like their personalities boil down to be very similar, not to mention that these personalities seem to have, at their core, an enlarged aspect of my own (I guess I rely on writing what I can identify with).

Although my characters aren't carbon copies of me (thank goodness), OR carbon copies of each other, there are definitely similarities, and I'm torn between wanting to change the characters to make them unique but not wanting to lose the essence of the character as I've come to know them. Thoughts?

Bibliophile answered, If they're a group of friends, and in books they normally are, then it's okay if they have similarities. I would keep them the same, and maybe add in some little extra quirks like this: suppose Jenna and Robert are both really easygoing, happy people, but Robert blubbers at the mention of unicorns and Jenna gets really angry when she hears the word 'elf'. That should be enough to differentiate.

And Anonymous said, What I try to do to make characters sound unique is one of two things:
-Write it and try to exaggerate all the characters’ traits and edit them down later, or
-Imagine a different character in their shoes. What would they do differently?

This related question came in from J. Garf on December 26, 2014: In nearly every story I've written I have the exact same character, only under a different name with very slightly varied physical features. This character is a ruthless villain (though they normally work for the true antagonist) that goes by a title instead of a name (the warden, the jailer, the sheriff, etc.), holds a position of authority that is honorable in a real community (similar to a chief of police) but is the exact same every time, and causes extreme problems for my main character. My characters usually react differently, but this default villain is so similar every time that I'm worried my readers will be bored if they read more than one of my stories. Help! How do I fix this?

Elisa weighed in with this: I HAD THE SAME PROBLEM! Default characters are bothersome. One of the best solutions is quirks! I know in a ruthless villain, you probably don't want hilarious/lovable quirks (unless... maybe you do?) so I'd go more with subtler things. But keep them varied for each villain and INTERESTING! I do so love an interesting villain. (I mean, I hate them. I love to hate them!) Say the Warden is large and strong, the Jailer is fat, and the Sheriff is a small man. Maybe the Warden is fond of music, while the Jailer is tone deaf and the Sheriff only tolerates music, but loves ballroom dancing. The Warden can be something of an introvert, while the Jailer is downright reclusive and the Sheriff is a social butterfly... There are a wealth of differences between three individuals that have the same job (specifically the job of the Ruthless Villain). Take any two fellows who work at the same job and note their differences and then use the observations to flesh out your Ruthless Villains.

And Erica Eliza wrote, Sometimes default characters become an author's trademark. I have a friend who's a big Dickens fan. When we had to read TALE OF TWO CITIES in school, she was disappointed because it didn't have a spunky orphan character.

First off: Sometimes we are a tad (or maybe more?) too hard on ourselves when we critique our own work. F, since you’ve described differences between your characters, I wonder if anyone else will see the redundancies. You may want to start by getting an objective opinion from a reader you trust. And J. Garf, I’d suggest doing the same, after you name these secondary villains, beyond their occupations. Your readers may see these characters as individuals, not as knock-offs of one another.

But assuming they really are too similar, the suggestions above are great. I love Elisa’s suggestions about the physical aspects of a character. In movies and on TV, each actor is so different in appearance, in movement, in voice quality, that–even if their roles are essentially the same–we never get confused. Think, for example, of gangsters or police. There may be, say, five on the force or in the gang, and four of the five aren’t particularly differentiated. The viewer never gets confused because they look so different. Or think of all the versions of Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Watson, and Moriarty that have come along; the characters are differentiated to at least some degree by appearance.

As writers we can remind our readers of how our characters look, not constantly, but often enough, and once their appearance is established, the reader will bring the image along into situations. If one character is tall, we can have the others crane their necks to look up at her. We can have the leader take her height into consideration when he plans his team’s actions. If another is especially tiny, he can be the one to fit through a basement window.

Even dress style can help. No matter the occasion, Sam looks like he just rolled out of bed, but the crease in William’s pants is always sharp enough to slice bread.

And a simple sex change will accomplish miracles in setting characters apart. Both Sam and Martha are selfish and sneaky, for example, but making them different genders will influence how we write them. I doubt there will be confusion or a feeling of sameness.

And I agree with both Elisa and Bibliophile about quirks and temperament, like introvert versus extrovert. Both comments offer terrific ideas for differentiating characters.

Of course we have to be consistent. We have to remember that Sam is chatty and Martha chooses her words carefully and raises her voice if anyone disagrees with her. We can’t put our short character in the middle of a crowd and expect him to see anything a yard away. In most circumstances we can’t make William slip in a mud puddle and not be upset about the dirt. Anonymous’s suggestion about exaggeration comes in here. If we exaggerate traits we won’t forget. It’s easy to tone down the over-the-top spots in revision.

Here are two more ideas:

If we plug actual people from our lives into our characters, they will naturally be unique. If we think of our cousin James when we write Sam, Sam will become unlike any of our other characters. As we write, we’ll see James. At meals, he reaches across three people to get the potato salad. When he walks, he leans forward as if into a strong wind. He’s not a great listener, so Martha has to be especially forceful to get his attention. If he’s our main villain’s henchman, his intrinsic loyalty will be put to (evil) use. If he’s a good character, that trait is likely to come in handy, too.

Or we can borrow from a few real people to come up with a composite Martha who is unlike anyone but herself. We can give her my late friend Nedda’s digressive conversational style, my friend Joan’s insight, and my late mother’s freakish ability to write upside down and backwards as fast as ordinary humans can write right-side up and forward.

Notice that we stay away from ourselves when we’re going to real people, since F worries about her characters’ closeness to herself, and because our characters are going, inescapably, to have some of ourselves in them, which isn’t a bad thing. We’re complex and multi-faceted!

The second idea is to think about our plot. What’s the action like? Do we have battle scenes? A trek across a mountain? Crowd scenes? Where does the tension come from? What role does this character have in the story?

Let’s imagine that Martha is Sam’s best friend, and he’s our MC. His goal is to win a competition. If he fails, the consequences will ripple out beyond himself. His family, Martha, his teammates will also be hurt. Back to Martha. How can we design her so that she both helps Sam and hinders him?

Below are three possibilities for each. You come up with three more. The choices are legion.

Helpful:

Martha is a whiz at one aspect of the competition, and she’s a good teacher.

Martha is super-calm. When anxiety gnaws at Sam, she can settle him.

Martha believes in Sam. When he doubts himself, her confidence pulls him through.

Unhelpful:

Martha is a pessimist. She wants Sam to win, but she expects the worst.

Martha has needs of her own, and she draws Sam into the whirlwind of her problems.

Martha is jealous of Sam’s abilities, even though they’re on the same side.

If we figure out how Martha can raise the tension in our story, we’ll come up with an interesting character whose nature fits our narrative.

Here are three prompts:

Write the story of the competition. Decide what the competition is and what’s at stake. Make Martha help and hinder Sam.

Rewrite the competition and make Martha the MC and Sam the one who assists and creates obstacles. The story may come out differently.

Write a scene between the main villain and the Jailer, but give the Jailer a secret the villain doesn’t know about. Rewrite the scene, and if the Jailer was a man, make him a woman. Rewrite the scene, but use some of the strategies we’ve talked about for making him different from the other jailers.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Hooray for Quests!

First off, the big news: Writer to Writer is OUT--RELEASED--PUBLISHED!!! It came out yesterday. Some of you are in it–no last names, of course. Thanks to you all for making this blog a great, helpful, safe place for writers, and for making this book possible.

Second off: Ho! Ho! Ho! Happy holidays, and best wishes for great writing in 2015!

This question came into the website late in July from  Writer At Heart: What are you supposed to do when all of your stories seem to repeat? Like, I've had this GREAT idea for a girl going on quest, but all of my other stories seem to copy this idea. What do you do in situations like this?

Just about any story can be expressed as a quest. Consider these: Heidi is a quest for a safe home; The Wizard of Oz, a quest for contentment; Anne of Green Gables, a quest to be loved; Charlotte’s Web, a quest for survival; Pride and Prejudice (and all of Austen–every single book!), not only a quest, but the same quest every time, for marital happiness. All my three Disney Fairies books even have the word quest in the title.

You may disagree with my description of the quest in these books, but I hope you’ll agree that in each one a character wants something and struggles in ways direct and indirect to get it. The character has an objective, even if he or she wouldn’t put it that way. The objective can be called a quest.

Let’s think about Jane Austen, my favorite writer. If you haven’t read her books, I can’t recommend them highly enough. She gives the twenty-first century reader an un-self-conscious look at an earlier age, which I enjoy, but I love her humor most of all, which never gets stale, no matter how often I reread her, and certainly never gets dated. She shows us our timeless humanity, flawed and funny and sympathetic.

Yes, her stories are each wrapped around an identical objective, but the way they play themselves out is different in each one. Austen is a genius at character development. Her characters are unique and meticulously defined, and their natures determine the way they approach their quest. The obstacles are different, too, but in an Austen novel, in my opinion, the freshness comes from the richness of the characters.

In my Disney Fairies books, many of the characters are the same, because the cast always includes the major Never Land fairies: Rani, Tinker Bell, Prilla, and Vidia. And the shape of each story is circular (***SPOILER ALERT***): the fairies’ world and Never Land itself are threatened; events play out; order is restored. But there are new characters, and the threat is different in each book, and the reader gets to see how the old characters respond to an unexpected situation. I hope the reader feels the comfort of the familiar combined with the excitement of the unknown.

As I’ve said before on the blog, there aren’t many possible plots. There’s always a problem, characters who influence events, and almost always a happy or sad resolution. I’ve suggested two major strategies for creating freshness: characters and obstacles. I can think of a third: setting. Austen’s novels would have to be different if they were set in a present day town, different again if they were dropped down in Oz.

Let’s think about “Jack in the Beanstalk.” The quest is for enough money to live on, so Jack’s mother sends him off to sell the cow. Jack is willing to trade it for beans a stranger tells him are magical. Another character wouldn’t be so trusting. The quest would have to be pursued in a different way. Same quest, though. Different story.

Or we can keep Jack but change the obstacles. He takes the beans. His mother throws them out the window, because her character hasn’t changed, either. The story veers from there, though. Suppose what grows is a coat tree upon which hangs a cloak. Jack puts on the cloak, which confers magic powers, although he doesn’t know what they are. His disgusted mother kicks him out, and, in true fairy tale fashion, he sets off, innocent and gullible as ever, to make his fortune and keep his mom from starving. Same quest. Different story.

Or suppose we set the story in modern times. The beanstalk pops up. Jack climbs to the penthouse gym of his forty-story apartment building. The giant is a body builder. Killing him will land Jack in jail, if he gets away with it. Same quest. Different story.

We writers are stuck with ourselves. The themes that hold us in their grip today may change only slowly, if at all. We may have to work through them in story after story. Obedience and its mirror image, rebellion, crop up in many of my stories, obviously in Ella Enchanted, but also, to name two more, in Ever and The Fairy’s Mistake. In Ever, this saying runs through the book: As you wish, so it will be. In The Fairy’s Mistake, Rosella has to toughen up and resist her natural impulse to do what others want, while her sister has to make an exception to her own me-first motto. But this theme and the plots that it calls forth don’t make my stories all the same!

If our plots often present themselves as quests, maybe there’s something in the story shape that we’re figuring out. There may be questions we’re trying to answer through quests, or we may be exploring the limits of personal power, or could be there’s a loss we’re trying to recover. Or, since quests are so varied, it’s something entirely different. We don’t ever have to know. I believe that our hidden motives give our stories energy, vitality, and depth. If we know exactly what we’re doing (if that’s possible), we’re working only on the surface.

I like the quest shape. When I’m having plot trouble, when my story seems to be wandering and getting too complicated, I examine it to find the quest. I ask myself what the basic problem is and what my MC wants most of all–what she’s questing for. When I figure that out--things are really bad if I can’t!–I see the quest and the obstacles to its success. Then I can streamline my story and my plot falls into line.

A quest shape keeps a story moving. The reader knows what the prize is, wants it to be reached, groans at every setback, marvels at the variety of problems that we’ve created, and holds her breath until the resolution, for good or ill, arrives. Hooray for quests!

Here are four prompts:

Write the “Jack and the Beanstalk” quests three ways: change Jack’s character; change the obstacles to his success; change the story’s setting. When you change the obstacles, you can use my coat-tree idea or anything else you come up with.

Instead of changing Jack, change another character: his mother, the giant’s mother, the giant himself. See how the story plays out.

I think the quest, which fails, in “Snow White” belongs to the queen, who wants to remain the most beautiful. If you disagree, indulge me anyway. Try these approaches to creating new stories with a kernel of “Snow White.” For character, she wants desperately to continue to win the beauty contest, but maybe she isn’t quite as evil as the original or isn’t evil at all. When you change the obstacles, she can’t disguise herself; she’s a complete bust at impersonation, so she has to go about endangering Snow White differently.

If you have a story with a tangled plot that’s driving you crazy, apply the quest method. Frame the plot as a quest and work out the knots. Keep writing.

Have fun, and save what you write!

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!