Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Defined by decisions

Before the post, this is a call for questions. My long list is running down. I know I don’t add every question that comes in to my list. Some I don’t have a lot to say about, or I may have answered something similar recently. But if there’s anything about writing that plagues or confuses you or that you’ve always wondered about, this is a good time to ask. Poetry questions also welcome.

On April 5, 2014, Farina wrote, If you have a character's, well, characteristics down in a description of him, can you give some advice for then writing that person in their own character, showing off their characteristics and personal traits? So often I feel like my characters are all blandly similar in my writing even though in my own 'Character Bible' I have varying personalities and flaws for them all! 

In response, Bibliophile wrote, Putting them in situations where their values are challenged would be a good idea. That way, you can see how true they are to what they say they believe, and everyone is going to react differently. Use the (it doesn't have to be in your story) 'A house is burning down and you can only save one of these two things: a priceless painting or a murderer.' Then have a conversation with your characters and ask them why they chose what they did. Keep in mind, there is no true right and wrong answer to this question, it's just a great way see where your characters’ priorities are. (The question is borrowed from Shannon Hale's Princess Academy: Palace of Stone.)

Interesting suggestion. We can move the idea behind Bibliophile’s suggestion into our story, that is, we can look at the moments in our plot when our character faces a choice.

Let’s go with the choice Bibliophile and Shannon Hale suggest. Let’s imagine a strange combination of events that might present our MC, Tania, with this exact dilemma. A civil war is raging in her country, where she works as a prison guard. Because a high-security prison was bombed, the provisional government has moved the surviving prisoners into the only structure still standing that’s big enough to house them, the fine arts museum, which holds the cultural legacy of the land. Unfortunately, one of its new inmates is an arsonist. The museum is burning. Tania guards the wing where both the murderers are penned and the masterpieces of the golden age of portraiture are displayed. She can save a murderer’s life or a cultural legacy. She may even be able to rescue more than one painting but only one person. What does she do?

We can consult our character bible to see what she cares about, how she reacts in a crisis, what her life has been up to this point. With that, we may be able to decide what this particular character will choose.

Suppose we know, for example, that she’s judgmental. Right and wrong are clearly defined in her mind, which is one reason she became a guard. Even so, this particular choice may move her into unknown territory. She believes in preserving life although she thinks murderers are the lowest of the low. She’s not much of an art lover, but she’s a patriot and she regards the museum’s holdings as a national treasure. Her values are in conflict.


The choice will be brought into sharper relief if we write the scene as it unfolds. The writing itself is likely to reveal Tania to us and will help us help her choose.

Which particular murderer is in danger of incineration? Does Tania know the details of his crime? Did he poison his own mother? Or did he kill the man who killed his sister, who got off on a technicality? What’s he like? What’s he saying to Tania while the flames lick the walls? How frightened is she? How clearly is she thinking?

Her choice will give the reader an idea of her. She can take the painting or the murderer, or she can be a ditherer and try to take both: advance five yards with the murderer, run back for the painting, and so on, possibly too slowly to get out alive with either. A tragedy. But whatever action she takes, her character will be much clearer if we write her thoughts as well, and if there’s an opportunity for dialogue, too, so much the better.

Thoughts first. We can make a list of possibilities, like this:

I wish they’d given us fire training. Am I supposed to close the door or leave it open? Do I take the stairs or the elevator? Which is worse, first degree burns or third? I don’t want those puckery scars on my face.

He looks a lot like Mr. Pollack. If I leave him, I’ll have to live with killing Mr. Pollack. He’s whimpering. Mr. Pollack would probably whimper, too, if he were here. This painting looks like Maria when we were in the third grade.

Aaa! It’s so hot! We’re both going to die. I can hardly see. I’ll take whatever I touch first, the prisoner or a painting. We’ll die together.

Our characters’ thoughts help define them. We find out something about each version of Tania from what’s going through her mind. The first Tania may be a tad vain. The second Tania is more sympathetic, if no more competent. The third tends to panic, although she has a good reason in this case. Your turn. Write three more stream of consciousness moments for Tania.

On to dialogue. She can have a cell phone and a walkie-talkie. There may be other guards in the building, and she may be shouting to them. She may be talking to the murderer. In her frightened state, she can also be talking to the painting. Here are some possibilities:

To her best friend on the cell phone: “Tell me you’ll take Susie if I don’t come out of here. I don’t want to die worrying about her. Tell her every day that I loved her, and remember to mix wet food in with the dry. She won’t eat otherwise.”

To the murderer: “One move I don’t like and I will leave you and take the picture. Hands in the air. High. Keep them up.”

Another possibility to the murderer: “Don’t kill the lady who’s saving your life. Don’t be like the scorpion in that story. We’re in this together.”

Your turn again. Write three more bits of dialogue for Tania. See how they define her.

I find character bibles most helpful once I start writing, and I don’t use them for every character. It’s only when my character has to do or think or say something and I can’t figure out what that should be that I create a character bible. And usually I leave it unfinished the minute I know what to put in my story. I may go back to it, though, if I get stuck again.

Using the choice between the murderer and the art is useful if our story includes that very decision. Otherwise, it’s just an exercise. When we get back to our story we may find that whatever we came up with in our hypothetical situation doesn’t fit.

One more thought: The more detail we include in our scenes, the easier it will be to make Tania come to life as a lively personality.

Naturally the prompt is to write the scene in the burning museum/prison. When you’re finished, if you’ve gotten fascinated by Tania, continue with the rest of the story, which may start with the lead-up to the burning building and go on to include her role in the civil war. If the murderer interests you, too, keep him in. Tania may not save him, but he may manage to survive anyway.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Subplots and Slow-Cooking Romance

On March 29, 2014, maybeawriter wrote, I noticed that I tend to rush through subplots. For example, in one story, I have my two MCs falling in love. They meet the first day, then they're already friends with hints of romance by the end of the second. I know shared life-threatening experiences tend to help people bond quickly, but it seems somehow too fast to me. In the same story, I have a (fundamentally good) character who considers himself a super villain, and I think he abandons his life philosophy too quickly. I think both subplots need to be slowed down. Any thoughts on how to pace subplots so they don't get rushed?

And Eliza responded: It isn't unbelievable to fall in love after two days. Just to act on it. Hints are okay, things like MCs looking at each other for too long, going out of their way to help each other, and giving compliments. Readers pick up on hints. Just hold off on things like kissing for a while. The longer you hold off, the more readers will want them.

Let’s talk about subplots first, because I recently gained a new understanding in that area. I used to think that a subplot had to be an entirely separate side story. The Lord of the Rings trilogy, for example, is full of this kind of subplot, set off when the fellowship splinters. Various characters leave Frodo and have complete adventures on their own. These subplots come together in the grand resolution of the ring, but they work themselves out in isolation.

Stolen Magic has this kind of subplot, but most of my books have a simpler kind. Let’s take Ella Enchanted as an example. The main plot is Ella’s quest to rid herself of the curse of obedience. Her experiences with ogres would be a subplot. So would her run-ins with Hattie. Her father’s romance, if we can call it that, with Dame Olga would be. Even her relationship with Char would be. Ella, as the POV MC, is there for all of them, but they’re still subplots, which braid together to make trouble for Ella and to finally contribute to the story’s resolution.

I agree with Eliza. I’m on board with quick-developing romantic feelings, because I think they often arise this way. Electricity sizzles between two people, and they like each other, too. They’re both their best selves when they’re together, at least on the first few occasions.

If our story is a romance and we want it to be longer than five pages, we do need to slow it down. What are the possibilities? Can we bring in subplots?

Complications can be external or internal or both. Let’s call maybeawriter’s romantic duo Ginnie and Max, and the guy with delusions of super villainy Warren. And let’s imagine that Ginny and Max enjoyed each other so much on their first meeting that they agree to a repeat the next day at the local historical museum, because they’re both history buffs. Here are a few external events that might intervene:

Max’s mother is in a car accident. Things look dicey for her. Max is so involved, waiting in the emergency room with his dad and comforting his little sister, that he forgets the date. Ginny waits an hour for him with rising feelings of disappointment and anger.

Ginny discovers when she gets home that her father wants her to go fishing with him the next day. He rarely has time to spend with her and she doesn’t want to disappoint him. She calls Max and gets his voice mail. She leaves a message and also texts him. He doesn’t get back to her because he left his cell phone on the bus on his way home. He waits for her for an hour the next day. He’s worried, rather than angry, because he realizes she may have left him a message, and he thinks something may have happened to her.

One of them is in a car accident on the way to the museum.

Stuart, an old friend of Ginny’s shows up unexpectedly. She reaches Max, and he suggests the friend come along. He does, and his presence throws off the chemistry between Ginny and Max. By the end of the day neither is sure there ever was a spark.

Max is abducted by a ring of diamond smugglers, or he’s carried off by a hungry dragon.

Ginny falls, strikes her head, and has amnesia.

See if you can add three (or more!) more external interrupters to my list.

For internal forces we have to make decisions about these two. There are lots of possibilities. Here are a few:

Max is thorough. When he gets home he googles Ginny. He finds her Facebook page, where he learns about her hobbies, sees her friends. Thinking he’s just expressing interest, the next time he sees her he quizzes her on what he saw. She feels spied on.

Ginny is enthusiastic. When she gets home she texts Max to say what a great time she had and how she told her girlfriend what a great guy he is. Max is reserved and not sure he likes being discussed with Ginny’s friends.

Max tells his friend Jay about liking Ginny. Jay knows Ginny and opines that Max can do better. Ginny isn’t cool enough for him. Max, who cares far too much about the opinions of others, feels ashamed of his feelings for Ginny. His hesitation shows the next time they meet.

Ginny doesn’t trust her luck. She can’t believe how nice Max is, and she worries that he’s going to stop liking her, because great things just don’t happen to her. She works herself into such a state that she cancels the date, not wanting to be there when he loses interest.

There. Your turn to write down three or more internal obstacles.

Note that these delaying elements can give rise to subplots. For example, we can develop subplots involving the families of Max and Ginny. Likewise, one about a ring of diamond smugglers. Or a hungry dragon! On the internal side, the relationship with Jay can be a subplot. Or Ginny’s easily discouraged state of mind can be.

As for Warren, the character who misguidedly believes himself to be a super villain, I’d suggest some scenes that confirm his idea of himself and some that confound it. A friend can try to prove to him that he’s a decent person but he refutes the arguments, bolstering his opinion of himself. Another friend, who actually is evil, can act badly, and Warren finds himself angry with her. His friend Ginny can beg him for advice about her relationship with Max, and he tells her he’s too busy to help. After she leaves he feels awful, but he tells himself that he doesn’t have time for such a trivial thing as love. Then he goes to a store for equipment he needs for his YouTube filming, which will prove his badness. On the way, he’s the only witness to the car accident involving Max’s mom. He calls 911 and stays with her until the ambulance comes. Then he hurries off to complete his purchase, ignoring his contradictory actions.

Ginny can be a subplot in his story. So can the car accident and its aftermath. Also the other friend who tries to reason with him. And let’s not leave out the YouTube performance and what comes of it.

This post is full of prompts:

Write a story about Ginny and Max. Try several of my suggestions and your own for slowing down the momentum of their romance.

Write a story about the confused non-super villain Warren. Write the scene in which he makes his YouTube video. Write the scene of the car accident and the scene with Ginny.

Write a story or novel that combines Warren's confusion about himself with the romance between Ginny and Max.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Deadly but likable hero

Here–ta da!–is the reveal of the cover for Writer to Writer, from Think to Ink:

And here’s the new cover for Writing Magic:

On March 23, 2014, Kenzi Anne wrote, So I have a predicament... The villain in my story needs to lose, and I was initially going to have him die. Unfortunately, I need the heroine of my story to be the one to defeat the villain, but I'm not sure how to do that without having my heroine outright kill the villain herself. I feel like she wouldn't be much of a hero since killing really isn't moral or likable for a heroic character...any thoughts?

Elisa opined, Well, actually, some people have to be killed to preserve peace. And plus, if there isn't a penalty for despicableness, what keeps everyone from being despicable? But, if you absolutely don't want her to kill him, why don't you have her do it indirectly? Like, have her rig up the chandelier to fall to cause a distraction, only the villain steps under it at the precise moment it falls, and is demolished! (That is, of course, just a basic example. You can go much more complex than that.)

And Eliza said, Sometimes it's more satisfying to watch the villain live with defeat than just get killed. Maybe your hero destroys the one thing that meant the world to the villain and they have to stand there and watch all their hard work crumble before their eyes.

The only time I’ve had my heroine kill a villain is in The Two Princesses of Bamarre, when Addie stabs (if I remember right) to death the dragon Vollys–to the dismay of some readers, because Vollys is lovable. But she’s evil, and I felt she had to go. I don’t think Addie is any less admirable for doing away with her.

But Vollys isn’t human. So far, I’ve shied away from having people kill people, though it may be unavoidable in the book I’m working on now, during summer break from poetry school. Squeamishness, rather than morality, has stopped me in the past; I don’t think it’s immoral for an author to have a fictional character kill another fictional character, whether it’s a villain murdering a secondary character or an MC polishing off a villain. I hasten to assure you all: in real life, I’m mild-mannered.

Certainly in books, movies, and TV, heroes often off villains, and the reader or the audience cheers and goes on loving them. Think of James Bond, for instance.

We’re wandering a little away from my area of expertise, because I’m not a blood-and-guts writer, but I suspect that the method the hero uses is important. For example, it’s probably a rare heroine who poisons her villain. We’re likely to squirm if an author makes our beloved heroine Martha stir arsenic into the villain’s tea or shoot him in the back using a telescopic rifle sight (correct lingo?) from an office building across the street from his hotel.

Often in a thriller, we see the two locked in mortal combat. One of them is going to die, and we want it to be the villain. I’ve peeked between my fingers countless times in a movie while a hero and villain struggle on a window ledge. The villain goes over, although maybe the hero really wanted to haul him in to jail. But nobody is miserable about the way it went down and he fell down.

Speaking of jail and moving in Eliza’s direction, bringing a villain to justice can be a satisfying way of avoiding death. He can no longer hurt anyone else, and if we set it up right, we can make sure his life in the clinker will be horrible. And justice doesn’t have to mean a maximum-security prison in some country we all know; it can be a dungeon in the castle cellar or exile to a convict planet in the next galaxy.

I love the way Hook meets his end in Peter Pan. Peter defeats the pirate in a duel, a terrible humiliation. But the crocodile, whose clock has finally stopped ticking, eats him. If we can engineer this kind of send-off for our villain, hooray for us.

One way to get there is to think about what would make our villain most miserable. Might be loss of power or wealth or being deprived of the company of his pet boa constrictor. If our heroine can bring this about, the reader will be satisfied. And a nice aspect of these less-than-final final solutions is that they’re reversible, so we can bring our villain back in the next book, if we want to.

A painful example of using what a character fears most occurs in George Orwell’s 1984 (high school and up). *Spoiler alert!* If you haven’t read this chilling masterpiece and plan to, skip this paragraph. Since the novel is a tragedy, it’s the heroes who suffer defeat, but the method can be applied to villains, too. The government, which is the villain here, knows what everyone fears most–heights or spiders or confinement–and subjects dissenters to whatever that is for them. In this conception, everyone snaps; no one can withstand his greatest fear. The dissenters are broken and no longer a threat to the state. As soon as I read the end of the book, I knew what could be used against me. No bones would be broken, not even a scratch, but I’d be finished. Horrifying. And we can do something like this to our villain.

We have to set it up early in our story. Probably we have to show how hard it will be for our MC to discover our villain's secret and bring it about. She may not know what she’s looking for or even that there is an Achilles’ heel in our seemingly invincible villain.

Kenzi Anne also asks about the morality or likability of a heroine who kills a villain. We can debate forever the morality of a character (or a person) who kills, even to save other lives. But I think our heroine can be likable whether or not she kills anyone. I’m not sure her likability is at stake unless she kills in a way the reader can’t identify with, or that disgusts the reader. Suppose Martha draws a bead on the villain when he’s about to smother her best friend who’s innocently asleep. We want her to get the villain and save her friend, and let’s assume that killing him is the only option. We’re entirely on her side. We’ll still want her to succeed, but we may feel less fond of her if her accompanying thoughts or actions don’t please us. We may get turned off if she’s hoping, as she pulls the trigger, that he doesn’t die quickly, or, alternatively, if she’s debating what she’s going to eat for lunch as soon as he’s dead. Or if she kills him and then kicks his cat or raids his fridge.

Gee, villains are always so much fun! Here are three prompts:

Put Martha and the villainous, heavily armed, and very large Mr. MacTavish on the roof of a twenty-five-story office building. One of them is going to fall off. Write the fight scene, and kill whoever has to die.

Put them back on the roof, and have Martha figure out what Mr. MacTavish fears most. Have her vanquish him without killing him--if you can, without touching him. Write the scene.

In the traditional fairy tale, Snow White’s evil stepmother dances to death in red hot slippers. Devise a better punishment for her and make Snow White bring it about.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Memorable moments

We’re in primrose and rhododendron heaven at our house. The primroses are like flower fireworks: one tier of flowers opens, then the next above it. If you’d like to see, just click on David’s website on the right.

And there seems to be a new promotional thing in the publishing world: the cover reveal. I had never heard of it, but now I’m involved. Writing Magic is getting a new cover to go with the forthcoming Writer to Writer, and I will reveal both–ta da!–the next time I post, and you will be among the first to see Eliza’s great subtitle as it will appear.

Now for this week’s topic. On March 23, 2014, Eliza wrote, My heroine has to find and save her lost boyfriend, who disappears at the beginning. I'm doing flashbacks so the reader can care whether or not he's rescued. I don't want the flashbacks to overwhelm the real story, so I'm doing important moments, like their first meeting, first kiss, etc. I know I need more but I'm not sure what to include. Ideas?

And Bug offered this: Have you read "Persuasion: A Latter Day Tale"? It's a retelling of Jane Austen's "Persuasion". In it, Anne keeps meeting her old boyfriend, which is pretty hard for her, and every chapter starts out with an old journal entry of a date with Neil or some random memory. Maybe if you read that it could give you some idea? I think that you should just add whatever memories you can think of right now, and then, when you are editing your book, cut the unnecessary stuff out.

I like the suggestion that Eliza write more than she may need. Pruning is easier than padding. And it’s a wealthy feeling when we have lots of material. I also like the chapter beginning idea. The advantage is that the reader comes to expect it, so we don’t need to create an entry into the flashback and an exit from it, as I wrote about in a post on the subject. If we do this a few times but irregularly, we won’t need one for every chapter, which could be burdensome.

As for choice of flashback moments, I don’t remember when my husband and I first met. We went to the same college, and he was just there in my background as I was in his. My most vivid memory was an early date when he set his hair on fire.

We were both smokers back then (and now we’re long-time non-smokers), as most everyone was. He decided it would be romantic to look at me through the flame of his lighter. He had curly, bushy hair, and it went up, but because it was so thick he didn’t feel it immediately. My jaw dropped. I didn’t know him well, and in my mind he could have been crazy enough to light his hair on purpose.

That was memorable.

What did I learn about David from that mini-conflagration? That he’s a romantic. After he realized and put the fire out, he thought it was funny, and he wasn’t so embarrassed he never spoke to me again. He wasn’t angry, either, because I’d been there when he looked a little silly. What do we have? Romanticism, sense of humor, willingness to be vulnerable. What a guy! (And he tolerates me retelling the story many times over.)

So, the important flashback scene may be the fifth kiss rather than the first. Or, it can be the first, but we want it to be the moment that means the most to our MC, and it’s nice if it can be a little surprising to the reader, like flaming hair was to me and David.

I assume that Eliza’s MC is trying to rescue her boyfriend because she loves him. If that’s the case and if the reader identifies with her, he will care about whatever she cares about. We need her to think about the boyfriend and miss him, but we may not need a lot of flashbacks.

In this example let’s call her Lena and him Luke. Suppose she’s thinking about when he was last seen and what she should do next. It might go like this: The terrible thing was, she wanted his ideas. They always puzzled problems out together. When Luke brainstormed with her, lines of inquiry never petered out. She’d reach a dead end, or he would, and the other one would see a glimmer further on. Over a cheeseburger or on a walk in the nature preserve, they’d solved the world’s problems–and Luke’s problems with his boss and her difficulties with her packrat of a roommate. Lena pressed her fingertips into her temples. Luke, Luke, how would you find you? What would you suggest? How did you become such a part of me? (Along with worries about his suffering and even–eek!–possible death.)

For this, the reader doesn’t even have to think well of him, only of her. Our reader may even come to understand that he’s horrible. She (the reader) may want Luke to never be found, but she wants Lena to be happy.

Or Lena may be rescuing Luke for some other reason than that she loves him. Their relationship may have run its course. They’re not that close anymore, but she doesn’t want anything bad to happen to him. She may have another motive as well. Maybe someone, who could be Luke or another character, has accused her of being incapable of finding her way out of a paper bag. Now she has something to prove. Or maybe their last moment before his disappearance was an argument. She needs to make up or explain herself or get in the last word.

If there isn’t quite as much at stake emotionally, the reader will still want Lena to succeed and will still be engaged by her investigation. So long as we make that interesting, we’re home free.

Back to the flashbacks. Another way to use them is to work clues into them, too. Suppose the seeds of Luke’s disappearance were sown long ago, and clues lurk in the flashbacks, then we have a second reason for introducing them. For instance, Lena thinks back to the party where she met Luke. He came with a friend named Otis whom Lena never saw again. We flash back to the party. Lena sees Luke writing in a small notebook. At the end of the evening, Luke walks Lena home, and Otis drives away. His car has a vanity plate: OBLIT. Lena thinks the meaning has something to do with literature, since Luke is an English Lit major. Flashback ends at Lena’s door. Now, back in the present, she wonders if OBLIT stood for obliterate.

Here are prompts from the post:

Imagine a memorable early event in the romance between Lena and Luke. Doesn’t have to involve a small fire, but it can. Write the scene. If you’re writing from omniscient third person, include the thoughts of each about the other. If from just one POV, write the thoughts of the POV character.

Write another scene from early days in their relationship and drop in hints that there is something mysterious about Luke.

Write the scene in which Luke disappears. If Lena isn’t present, write the scene when she finds out about his disappearance.

Write Lena’s speculations about what may have happened to Luke. Write the first scene in which she tries to find out what happened to him.

Write a flashback of Luke and make the reader mistrust him and fear for Lena.

Have fun, and save what you write!