Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Twisting, Turning Way

I have two events coming up post-tour! Next Saturday, May 9th, I'll be at Byrd's Books, 126 Greenwood Avenue, Bethel, Connecticut, at 11:00 am. And the following Sunday, May 17th, I'll be participating in the South Carolina Book Festival at the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center located at 1101 Lincoln Street. I'll be speaking there from 12:30 pm to 1:30 pm and then signing books. Hope to see some of you at one of these events!

If you don’t already know, Stolen Magic came out on April 21st, and I just finished my tour. I met a few of you, and I’m so glad I did!

On December 27, 2014, Elisa wrote, How does one make intricate little side-plots? To add interest and mystery to a story what must one do? I have one story that I've written quite a bit in and I know just about everything that is gonna happen, etc., but it is kinda boring me because there is one and only one plot that plods on and on, no interesting little side-plots to add color and depth, just a very simple, straight forward story that goes neither to the left nor the right. How do I fix this? I've tried to add more action to the Main Plot (which is, essentially the ONLY plot) but it just adds weight and burden, not necessarily interest. I'm bored at the one-wayness of the story. Any ideas for fixing this?

I tend to have the opposite problem: I over-complicate. So maybe we can find a place in the middle.

Sometimes when stories are hurtling along a single track, the track is single because we haven’t slowed down enough for side tracks to appear. Let’s take the fairy tale “Snow White.” Not much complexity there. The plot mostly revolves around the evil queen, and Snow White herself is just a pretty doll of a character who’s acted upon by others, again mostly the queen.

If we don’t slow down, nothing is very interesting. The queen is motivated by jealousy, the hunter by pity. The dwarfs take her in because she can clean and cook. The prince is love-struck by Snow White’s seemingly lifeless beauty.

Let’s pretend I never wrote Fairest and look at the story fresh.

We can pick any of the characters for the slowing down, so let’s start with the prince and make him our MC. Why is he traveling through those woods? Is he looking for the dwarfs? For something else? Is he on the run? Does he have a sweetheart at home?

More slowing down. We go back to the moment of his departure from his parents’ castle. What sort of family does he leave? Who says goodbye to him? With what feelings does he depart?

What happens on his way to the dwarfs? Does he encounter anyone? Does he run into trouble? Is he bringing trouble with him, or behind him? Are the dwarfs and Snow White in danger because of him?

I’ve never bought it that he falls in love with a dead body, or what he thinks is a dead body. So what is it about the apparent corpse that appeals to him? There’s lots of room for complexity here.

Then, when she wakes up, what happens? Are they really instantly in love?

In the fairy tale, they invite the evil queen to their wedding. We can explore the gaps there. She has to be dealt with, because what’s to stop her from attacking Snow White again? In the fairy tale she goes to the wedding. Why? She could decline the invitation. The mirror has told her that the new queen is more beautiful than she is. Won’t she be dangerous if she shows up? If she doesn’t come, she’s out there being evil. If we slow her part down, we can introduce all these considerations and make complicated things happen based on them.

Let’s move on to another character, the hunter, who risks his life for Snow White. That’s extreme kindness. When I’m kind to someone, if it’s more than a quick thing, I become involved. I want to know what happened. Is the hunter going to just let Snow White go, or is he going to interest himself in her future? If we want to complicate our story, we may decide to answer yes and give him a bigger, slower role.

Snow White’s father doesn’t come into the fairy tale in any significant way, but we can bring him in. Does he know what his wife is up to? What’s his relationship with his daughter? Does he know she’s left the castle? What does he want? What’s going on with his kingdom and affairs of state? How’s his health? We keep asking ourselves questions and consider possible answers, looking for threads we can weave into our story.

This is fun!

And the dwarfs can add more complexity. Are they all glad Snow White is living with them? Do they all like her cooking, for example? Do they all like her? Have any of the dwarfs fallen in love with her? Do they get along with each other? What do they think of the queen? Might one of them be in league with her? What do they think of the prince when he comes along? Do they all think she should marry him?

What about Snow White herself? What does she want? What are her hopes for herself? What was her relationship with the evil queen before the mirror declared her more beautiful? What’s her relationship with her father? With the hunter? Did she know him before he took her into the forest? What does she think of the dwarfs? Does she like them all? Does she like living with them? Is she trying to figure out where else she could go? Or does she want to spend her life in their cottage? I’ve never understood why she lets the evil queen in, even the first time. So why does she do it?

We can keep in mind that our story doesn’t have to end where the fairy tale does. It can go into the future, or we can tell just a fragment of the story that we’ve expanded into a multi-faceted epic.

We can develop plenty of intricacy with just one POV, but if we want still more, we can try multiples or omniscient third person. The hunter and a dwarf, for example, can have their own POVs.

The key to subplots is our characters and their conflicting desires and circumstances. We discover these when we slow our action down, enter our characters’ hearts and minds, and get into the details.

Here are a bunch of prompts:

Pick out five to ten–or all!–of my questions about the characters in Snow White and write a paragraph or two about what you might do with them.

Write two more questions about each character. Explore them in a few paragraphs of notes.

Write an argument between two dwarfs over Snow White. If you like, she can overhear it.

Write a scene that causes the prince to leave home. Could be an argument, a quest he takes on, whatever.

From the hunter’s POV, write the scene that follows the moment he lets Snow White go in the forest.

Write a scene between Snow White and her father.

Write the whole story!

Have fun, and save what your write!

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Onward! Or Backward?

First off, I’ve come across a magazine that seeks story and poetry submissions from high school students, and, since the submissions must come from students themselves, not from schools, I assume you can be home schooled if you’d like to submit. And the publication actually pays a fee if a work is accepted, rare in the poetry world. Here’s the link: http://www.hangingloosepress.com/submissions.html. Be sure to tell us here if you get an acceptance. Good luck!

Second off, I’ve announced on my website that there’s a sale on the e-book version of A Tale of Two Castles going on until April 20th, which isn’t very far off. Here’s the link if you’d like to take advantage of it: http://www.gailcarsonlevine.com/news.html.

And third off, a reminder of my tour for Stolen Magic, which starts in a few days. The farthest west I’m being sent (tour arranged by my publisher) is Ohio, but for you easterners, I would love to meet you! Here’s the link to the details on my website: http://www.gailcarsonlevine.com/appears.html.

Finally for the post! On December 1, 2014, Bug wrote, I've never actually... uh, finished a story. This NaNoWriMo I got 30k, which is twice as much as I have ever gotten. So, it's exciting, but I've realized that I need to change something, and it's so major that it'll change EVERYTHING. Should I just continue and pretend that I already wrote it that way, or start over?

Erica Eliza responded with, First, congratulations for getting that far. Some changes aren't as big as you think. If it's something drastic, like switching the POV, I'd say restart. If you can get away with rewriting certain scenes and tweaking lines in others, keep moving forward. (This is still the same Eliza, BTW. I just tacked my first name onto my screen name.)

And Rapunzelwriter chimed in along the same vein. I'm not quite done with mine, but I reached 30K as well and am currently feeling like I have to rewrite most, if not all of my story. I've also been having a problem with not being able to recognize anything good in my work. Sometimes I'll finally finish a short story, and after re-reading it, groan because I see so much that needs to be fixed, and rarely anything good. Any advice?

carpelibris offered, Sounds normal to me! Rough drafts (at least to me) are just a pile of "stuff" you make in order to have a complete thing to work on. Raw material that you can turn into something wonderful.

At the time I replied, Everybody works differently. I'd recommend that you keep going and, yes, pretend you've already made the changes. By the time you get to the end, you'll have a better idea about how to revise.

Now, reflecting at my leisure, I still mostly agree with myself, although I don’t always follow my own advice and I’m not even sure if it applies to every story.

In my experience, just moving forward is a happier way to write. In my novels Ever and A Tale of Two Castles, I did just that. I was confused, I often felt that I didn’t know what I was doing, but I kept going. I finished both books in under a year and a half, pretty quick for a turtle of a writer like me. And I look back on those books as comparatively painless. I’m trying to do the same with the manuscript I’m tentatively calling Bamarre, the prequel to The Two Princesses of Bamarre, which I’m working on right now, even though the process has been interrupted by poetry school.

On the other hand, I did start over--and over and over--in both Fairest and Stolen Magic, and both books were miserable to write. Fairest took four years and Stolen Magic four and a half, although I did write Writer to Writer in the middle.

In the case of Fairest, I couldn’t get the POV right. The underlying problem, however, was that I was at a loss about how to handle the part of the story after the Snow White character eats the poisoned apple. Once I realized what to do there, I was able to write in first person from her POV and everything fell into place. Was it necessary to go through all those iterations to figure it out? I don’t know.

I was even more mixed up with Stolen Magic, and my problem was plotting, specifically plotting a mystery, which has to have suspects (I forgot them in the first 260 pages) and has to be solvable (which I forgot in the second 140 pages). Unlike Fairest, if I had managed to write either of the first two versions, they would have been very different stories from the one that I ultimately developed, inch by inch. I regret that I never figured those stories out; they were interesting, and my curiosity about them didn’t get satisfied.

So I suppose my recommendation is to keep writing new pages if you can. If you can pretend that you’ve made the revisions, if it’s clear enough to you what you will have to do later, then just keep writing. Go back only if you absolutely can’t go forward.

About finishing, I always finish. Sheer stubbornness is one reason. A story that is a figment of my own imagination is not going to defeat me.

Another is curiosity. Since I don’t outline, I don’t know exactly how my story is going to turn out unless I write it. The ending may be clear in my mind, as it is in the book I’m working on now, since it has to prepare this world for the events in Two Princesses, and I know the feeling I want the ending to have, but I’m not yet sure how I’m going to get there, even though (I hope) I’ve written two-thirds of the book.

The last reason, and probably the most important one, goes to the heart of Rapunzelwriter’s final question. I can keep going because I don’t look for what’s good or bad in my WIP (work in progress). In fact, I studiously avoid this question, which will just lead me down the rabbit hole of self-doubt. I recommend that everybody avoid it. If that self-doubting voice in our mind starts piping up, we have to stamp it down with both feet. Yes, we have to decide if our characters are acting according to character. Yes, we need to vary our sentences and remember to include sensory information other than the visual, and so on. We have to be critical in a nitty-gritty, detail-oriented way, but we don’t have to be nasty to ourselves! We have to give our stories, ideas, words, plots, characters–all of it!–a chance to shine. I believe we can squelch our negativity if we pay attention to our self-critical impulses and don't let them take over.

Even when I finish a novel, the big question I ask myself is, Is this working? Not, Is this good? We can let the critics weigh in on that. We can just congratulate ourselves and do a victory dance and have a party and set off fireworks for having made our way all the way to “The End.”

Having said all this, I also think it’s okay for you (not me) not to finish. If you’ve learned all you can from a particular story, or if you’re bored, there’s nothing wrong with moving on. If you’re a young person, you’re changing at a crazy pace. What appealed to you a month ago may no longer be the slightest bit interesting. So try something else, and don’t worry if that fades, too. The only important thing is to keep writing, because if you do, eventually you’ll finish something.

Here are three prompts:

We never hear about Snow White’s younger sister, who won’t ever cause the mirror to arouse the evil queen’s jealousy. But this sister has extraordinary qualities of her own, which the dwarfs put to good use. And it’s possible that Snow White’s prince has a cousin. Make their lives intersect and write their story, which may or may not interfere with Snow White’s troubles.

Go back to your Snow White story and switch narrator in the middle. If you were writing in first person from the sister’s POV, switch to omniscient third or to first person from a different character’s POV. Do not go back. Just keep writing. If the story now takes you in a different direction, that’s okay. When you finish, revise.

Experience finishing. Take a simple story structure. Could be this: Your MC desperately wants to win a contest. Say there’s a kingdom, and every year the young people compete to find a large ruby, which the king hides. Your MC tries three times and finally succeeds. That’s it, the whole story. Write it in three to five pages. Include two to three other characters, no more. Give your MC a personality. Include dialogue, a hint of setting, and get it done!

Have fun, and save what you write!

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Alone in a Character Desert

Just in! You can hear a few minutes of the audio version of STOLEN MAGIC here: https://soundcloud.com/harperaudio_us/stolenmagic_levine!

Here’s a preview of my upcoming tour for Stolen Magic. You’ll see that the farthest west I’ll be coming is Ohio and also that the time isn’t set yet for my first appearance in Washington, DC, but you can contact the bookstore for details.

Sunday, April 19th – Rhinebeck, NY
Oblong Books @4:00 PM (with Jeanne Birdsall)

Tuesday, April 21st – Concord, NH
Gibson’s Bookstore @6:30 PM

Thursday, April 23rd – Fairless Hills, PA
B&N Fairless Hills @7:00 PM

Saturday, April 25th – Hudson, OH
The Hudson Library & Historical Society from 2 – 4 PM

Sunday, April 26th – Washington, DC
Barston’s Childs Play @ 3:30 PM

Monday, April 27th – Takoma Park, MD
Takoma Park Public Library @7:30 PM

On October 30, 2014, Rock On wrote, I was kind of having trouble with the idea for one of my characters. She's a loner, and I've never written an MC who was a loner before. I like to give my characters a good, quirky supporting cast with a really close best friend and a geeky friend and lots of other unique characters. But if my character is a loner then that means basically no friends. She's an only child too, so no siblings. About the only people she has are her parents and then she has a dog. Any suggestions for a book with about three good characters and a dog, and then the villain?

In response, Bibliophile wrote, I assume by loner you mean introverted, not good with most people, etc. If that is the case, then that just means that your MC won't have a lot of friends, not none at all. She can still have a supporting cast of three or so friends who are probably misfits as well. Frankly, most of the characters I write ARE loners or misfits, mostly because I have never had an exorbitant amount of friends myself or I forget to write in interactions with other people besides like, one other person who is normally some sort of love interest. I think that any plot can be used with that cast of characters, though you may find that that size cast is just hard to work with. I do assume though that each of these characters are involved enough that it would be possible to tell the story or the majority of it from any of their POVs. That said, there is still room to place in tertiary characters to liven things up.

Bibliophile’s idea is certainly a possibility. Rock On’s MC–let’s call her Regina–may have a few friends who aren’t close to her, maybe because she pushes them away. Part of the arc of the story could be her growth in the friend department, and at the end she may have a best buddy. Could be that in the book’s crisis she’ll fail unless she relies on someone. For a happy ending, she does, and the friend comes through. For a tragedy, she doesn’t, or she does and the friend fails her.

We can add more characters if we like, the quirky supporting cast, although maybe not the best friend, while maintaining Regina’s loner personality. One of the supporting characters can be super-friendly, which may be annoying or not, and we can write all the ways Regina pushes him away. We can make a teacher reach out to her, and even though she likes this teacher, she can still keep herself at a long arm’s length.

Or we can make Regina a loner not by choice. She’s always reaching out, but her attempts are so awkward that people are put off. Or she’s hyper-critical and no one can stand to be around her. In this case we can also have a big cast, although no one likes her.

There are other alternatives as well. A long time ago I read a thriller called Slayground by Richard Stark (high school and up), which I’ve mentioned before on the blog. Most of the book, as I remember it, is a chase through an amusement part, and it was so tense that I inhaled before I read the first sentence and exhaled when I closed the book. Parker, the hero, isn’t a saint, but the people who are after him are worse. If I remember right, there were flashbacks to scenes with them and also to scenes with Parker’s girlfriend, but mostly the reader is in his head as he plans how to escape and how to defeat them. As I recall, we get to know only Parker in the course of the story, but it’s enough, because the action is so intense.

We can try something similar. Regina is alone somewhere; let’s imagine the setting is a kingdom where she doesn’t speak more than a few words of the language; she’s on a mission to capture the king’s daughter and get out. We write her thoughts, her plans, her emotions; we describe the castle and provide her observations of the king and his courtiers, the daughter, her nursemaids. We take her on a midnight exploration, where she fears discovery at every moment. If we want to suggest other characters in her life, we can have her write communiques that report her progress and failures to her commander at home, to her brother, to her teacher who prepared her for the mission. There’s probably going to be little dialogue in such a story, but lots of thoughts, setting, and, most of all, action.

Regina, her dog, and her parents can live in a remote place. She’s home-schooled, and she helps her parents with their work studying the behavior of a certain species of beetle. Maybe one of the parents is having trouble of some sort, and the beetles have been infested with a parasite, and Regina is carrying on a running argument with her parents about her future. Meanwhile, the dog develops a limp and the villain shows up. There’s a lot of complexity here. I don’t know if we need more characters.

The dog can be a full-fledged character, too, which will expand the cast a little. Even books for adults include animals who think in language. Some of them speak. A few examples include: Nop’s Trials by Donald McCaig (middle school and up, I think), which I loved, about a border collie; Call of the Wild by Jack London; Watchers by Dean Koontz (I’m not sure; maybe middle school, maybe high school), in which the dog's name is Einstein, and I don't think there are many characters in this one, either; Charlotte’s Web; Bambi. I don’t think the animals communicate directly with the human characters in any of these except Watchers. The dog in Rock On’s book--and ours--can talk if she wants it to. Regina’s dog can talk, can be her friend while maintaining its doggy qualities.

Here are five prompts:

Regina lands on the seventh planet of a giant star, where conditions are deemed suitable for people. The others in her seven-member crew died during the crossing. She discovers three-legged sentient beings on this planet who remind her of stools more than of anything else. She needs to establish camp, resume communication with earth, and win the cooperation of the aliens. Write the story.

Regina, a talented actor, is in a theater group. Everyone but her is outgoing, and she plays the part of a lovable friendly person. Because she’s so good, her fellow performers keep expecting her to be like her character. Write the cast party after the final performance in which she makes everyone understand that she is NOT their friend.

Regina and her intelligent dog are home alone when the villain rings the doorbell and manages to get in the house. Write the scene, and be sure to keep the dog doglike even if you decide it can talk.

Write the story of Regina with her beetle-scientist parents. You can give her the problems that I suggested or make up your own.

Write the story of Regina and her attempt to kidnap the young princess.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Plots and subplots

On October 5, 2014, unsocialized homeschooler wrote, I'm on the fifth draft of my novel (oh the joy of calling my work a novel!) and I think I've lost my way. Originally the story was simple--boy likes girl, boy writes anonymous letters to girl, girl gets in trouble because of boy, girl hates boy, boy saves girl. Okay, so maybe not that simple, but now it's really complicated. There are multiple perspectives, half a dozen more important characters, and another subplot. With all this extra stuff, the stuff that made up my first draft now only takes up a quarter of the novel. Part of me thinks that all the extra characters, subplots, points-of-view, and stuff should all go, but the other part of me really really really likes all the characters I've added. 

So do I cut out all the stuff in an attempt to recapture the original magic of my story? Or do I leave it all in and re-write the story from scratch for the third time and embrace the new magic of my story? Any suggestions?

Most stories follow one or two MCs, who have goals, who face problems, who overcome for a happy ending or fail for a tragic one. But exceptions abound. An example that leaps to mind is the novel (high school and above, I think) Exodus by Leon Uris, which I read decades ago, and which follows multiple characters. The problem of the story, the founding of Israel, doesn’t belong to just one or two MCs, but the struggle unites the narrative.

So that’s one way, a connecting thread. If we look over our story with its octopus tentacles of plot and POV, can we find or devise a problem that unifies everything? Suppose that overarching issue is the romance, and let’s call unsocialized homeschooler’s boy Rafe, and girl Stella. Our other POV characters are Stella’s sister, Pauline; Rafe’s best friend, Tom; Stella’s ex-boyfriend, Oscar; the principal of their high school, Ms. Quincy; and–oh, let’s mix it up–Mellie, Rafe’s cat, who, unbeknownst to everyone, has recently achieved human intelligence due to a freak accident with lightning one night when she got out of the house to go prowling.

Since our unifying problem is the romance, each character has to be invested in its success or failure. Let’s say Mellie, who used to have a happy social life with other cats, now finds her former friends dull. She’s miserable and wants to spread it around, so she’s trying to sabotage the romance. The reader is interested in how she goes about this, and also in whether or not she’s going to remain super-intelligent and whether Rafe is going to figure out her transformation.

Say Oscar, Stella’s ex, wants the relationship to succeed. He’s mad at Stella for their break-up and he thinks (rightly or wrongly) that she and Rafe will be wretched together. He’s moved on, but his new relationship is troubled. If he gets to a better place, he may be kinder to Stella, so the reader is caught up in his story, too.

You get the idea. The lives of these other characters work because of the bearing they have on the main event, and also because we’ve, naturally, made their personalities and their stories compelling.

Now I’m thinking of the novel, Hawaii by James Michener (again, high school and up), another book that I read as a young adult. It proceeds chronologically and tells the story of the islands, starting with the geological events that created them. The six sections are separated by time gaps. One is about the Chinese immigration, another about the influx from Japan, and I don’t remember what else. Each part, as I recall, is long enough to be a novella and to be satisfying, and each stands alone. I don’t think characters appear in more time period.

So that’s another approach, a chronological ordering. We can start our story in the past. Rafe and Stella can be the patriarch and matriarch, from whom everyone else descends. Their romance can be successful, but there’s a problem that succeeding generations have to work out.

A third way might be through theme. Now I’m thinking about Little Women. The MCs are sisters, which makes their coexistence in a story natural, but each has her own narrative arc. One chapter belongs to one, another to another.  They come together in the theme, which is growing up.

Love can be our theme in this example. The cat Mellie may find a turtle who was similarly storm-struck and whose intelligence was also enhanced. The two bond, and the reader experiences inter-species affection. Ms. Quincy becomes increasingly engaged with her job. She embraces the challenge of running a successful school (falling in love with her work). Oscar could be the failure. His new relationship founders, and his subplot is of love gone awry.

Writing in third-person can provide unity of voice, too. All of the books I mentioned are in third-person, but I don’t think that’s a necessity. Variety is fun for the reader, in my opinion.

Going in a different direction, however, we can decide that some of our subplots, new characters, and POVs deserve their own stories. We can split them off and give them their day in the sun. If we do, we may be able to be more expansive with them and not have to cram their problems into a story that belongs primarily to others (Rafe and Stella).

I’m painfully aware that I sometimes over-complicate my plots, and the result is that the tension flags. Then I have to slash and burn to get things rocketing along again. Many of us may struggle with this.If this is happening in your story or in unsocialized homeschooler's, simplifying may be the only answer.

To go back to unsocialized homeschooler’s question: I can’t say whether she should cut back, embark on draft number six, or find some middle. Here on this blog we don’t mind writing again and again to get it right. The point is to create a sense of continuity.

Here are four prompts:

Little Women is old enough to be in the public domain, which means you can fool around with it and not worry about copyright infringement. It’s possible that there’s more to Jo’s story than Louisa May Alcott was able to cram in with all the demands of the other sisters. Write a story about Jo that isn’t in the book. You can even make her an only child if you like. Then go on and write separate stories about each sister. You can also write one about Laurie. If you’re inspired, each one can be a novel, and the result can be a series.

Write a story about Rafe and Stella and the others with the overarching problem being their romance. Add or subtract characters at will. Try it in third person and then in first from more than one POV.

Write a story about them using the chronological approach. Rafe and Stella are the founders of the family, and they set up a mystery that succeeding generations have to resolve. Each secondary character can be the MC of a generation, or two of them can exist at the same time. Don’t forget Mellie the cat!

Treat these characters thematically. Their stories are united by a common theme, which can be love or anything else.

Have fun, and save what you write!