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!

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!