Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Vexing complexity

First off, I want to tell you that I’ll be talking and signing at the book festival in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, from April 4th through April 6th. Details are posted here on my website: http://www.gailcarsonlevine.com/appears.html. However, the schedule when you click on it needs to be updated, because I’ll be leaving by about 2:30 on Sunday. Anyway, I’d love to meet some of you there. Please come if you can!

On January 16, 2014, Melissa wrote, Does anyone have ideas on how to keep things from getting over-complicated? I feel like I get so far into my story that I get stuck and can never get back out of it to figure out an ending without everything seeming abrupt.

Eliza responded with this: Pace the ending like the plot. If you have a slow, thoughtful kind of book don't wrap everything up in two pages. But if it's fast paced don't drag it out forever. You don't need to tie up all the loose ends, it's ok to leave stuff ambiguous, but answer the big questions. Decide what your story's core conflict is. Make a list of all the subplots and characters and how they relate to it. Is there someone who really doesn't need to be there? Do your characters wander into Subplot Land for several scenes without discussing the core conflict? If it doesn't directly tie into your story's core and you can't tweak it, it doesn't need to be there.

Thanks, Eliza! Sounds like good advice for me, too. My tendency is to over-complicate as well. I’ve started a new book, although I haven’t been working on it much lately because of poetry school. Only twelve pages in and I’m already spinning a web that would make a spider blush, because it’s too loose to catch anything.

Here’s an example of how I get into trouble: Suppose I want to expand on “The Princess and the Pea” (never mind that I already did in The Princess Test). In this new story, Perlina, the true princess, is my MC, and I need to know what her backstory is before she shows up soaking wet at the castle doors, so I imagine that her throne was usurped the day after she ascended to it. She was escorted to the border and left there. Her core problem is getting her kingdom back. She wanders, cold, impoverished, often hungry, for a month until she hears in a village about the competition for a true princess, which she figures she can win, and then she’ll have a kingdom and its army to help her fight her way home.

Maybe this would work, but probably I’ve already over-complicated my story, which now has to detour through proving that Perlina is a true princess and dealing with the prince and the future in-laws. It’s possible that I would write two hundred pages before realizing that my real story has nothing to do with “The Princess and the Pea” and I have to remove that part (and save it).

When I wrote Ella Enchanted, I had Ella travel to Gnome Caverns with her father before starting her other adventures. I wrote 180 pages involving gnomes, Sir Peter, and the evil men who worked for him. My critique buddies were lost, and so was I. Eventually I cut the whole thing.

What sets me off is curiosity, imagination, and the fun of following an idea. This is important: If we tangle ourselves up, but we’re enjoying the writing, getting lost isn’t a tragedy. We snip and think and get going again. In this case, I would think about a more direct approach for Perlina. Where can she find allies without having first to marry one of them? Who would rally to her cause? How can she find out what’s been going on in her kingdom in her absence? Is a rebellion brewing?

Or, I might decide“that The Princess and the Pea” part is the most interesting and give Perlina a simpler back story.

My capacity for getting into plot trouble is at its worst if I’m writing in third-person omniscient or from more than one POV. Let’s take the story of Perlina’s ouster. If Perlina weren’t my first-person narrator throughout, I might decide to slip inside the usurper’s character and get involved with his goals. Maybe he forced his way to power just so he could offer a throne to the damsel he loves (not Perlina). She’s just a weaver, but she’s crazy for gold thread. Then I may get interested in this weaver, too, to find out if she’s in love with the young man who’s just hijacked a country for her. And there’s the prince who’s waiting for a true princess. He’s fascinating, too. What does he expect from this royal young lady? Are his ideas unrealistic? So I write a few scenes from his point of view. And my story is just a tad disorganized. But if I’m writing only what Perlina experiences I can’t be led astray into these side alleys, no matter how fascinating they are.

So that’s one strategy for story simplification: Limit your point of view to one. I don’t mean you should never write from more than one or from the POV of an omniscient narrator. This strategy applies only if your story is getting away from you. If you know how all your POVs fit into your story, go for it.

Another strategy is to come up for air occasionally, say every thirty pages. Look around. Ask yourself what’s going on. If your story is throwing out tentacles in every direction, follow them back to the center of the octopus and decide what you need. Clip off the extras before you’ve written 180 pages that don’t tell your story.

Regarding endings: Let’s imagine we have two subplots that have been moving along with the main event and we need to draw them to a satisfying conclusion. They're fine subplots; we don’t feel they should be cut. One of them, say, involves Perlina’s younger brother who’s been imprisoned to prevent a rebellion from forming around him, but he’s eager to escape and help his sister. We’re going to resolve his problem and the problem of the other subplot, whatever that is, before moving on to the final one. If we decide to go that way, we’ll orchestrate his escape and get him to the border to meet Perlina’s force. His presence will give her the boost to surge on to the capital. Or we can decide to have him (gasp!) executed, and news of his death will galvanize Perlina and remove any remaining doubts in her allies. The point is, if we settle the side plots, our conclusion can ring through with clarity.

Naturally, the prompts come from the post.

Write the scene in which Perlina loses her kingdom. If you discover that you need backstory, write it. Meanwhile, observe yourself in case you’re letting the story spin wildly. If you’re enjoying the ride, keep going. Otherwise, think about how the backstory might set up Perlina’s quest to get her kingdom back, and shape it along those lines.

Write Perlina’s wanderings in the kingdom of “The Princess and the Pea” after she's been expelled from her own land. Focus here on what she might learn that will help or hinder her later on.

Suppose Perlina was overthrown because the nobility didn’t find her a likely leader. Write the scene in which she meets her future in-laws and the prince and show her struggle to present herself with the dignity she had already been judged to lack.

Write the usurper’s first day on the throne, including his proposal to his weaver love.

From the prince’s POV, write the scene in which Perlina shows up at the castle door and comes in.

Put together whatever elements interest you and write the whole story.

Have fun, and save what you write!

53 comments:

  1. From the website:

    I am having great difficulty of finding the name of my enemy of my MC, Kiara. I am trying to find a name that means 'evil heart', 'evil' or maybe even 'killer'. Mrs. Levine, how do you figure out the name of your bad guy? It's very difficult for me to think of the enemies names. I have Google searched it (like I am suspecting is how most writers find what they are looking for :D_) and nothing came to be productive. Thank you anyway!
    Writer At Heart

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    1. Umm... Have you ever tried doing it in different languages. I mean I'm assuming that you have since you've been using the Google Machine. One thing I do when finding names is just string random syllables together. If a combo sounds good, I write it down. I have noticed that this can produce trends in naming though. For instance, all but two of my heroines have names that start with either 'A' or 'O', and my heros have a tendency to have 'C' names. Villains for me have 'V' names, but then again, so do a handful of heroes.... Just whatever sound good to you will probably work. But here's an idea~Galon~. It means 'heart' in Estonian. Oh I love Google Translate.

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    2. I like hard sounds for villain names, like k and z, or smooth and slippery sounds, like l and v. You might have a hard time finding baby names that mean evil since parents don't generally want evil babies. Try searching for names that mean dark. Off the top of my head, Cora means maiden of hearts.

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    3. Or you could go for irony, and name them something that means "Kindhearted," or something like that.

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  2. And this:

    I always reach a point in my stories where I think I'm doing really well, and I have at least some idea of where it's going, and I'm telling myself, "This will be the one. I'm finally going to finish a book! Maybe I'll even publish it!" And then, I just get bored with it. This only happens when I'm writing a novel, even a short one. If I'm writing a children's book, say for an assignment in school or something, I don't have this problem, but I really want to be able to finish a novel, at least once in my lifetime. Do you have any advice?
    Alyssa

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    1. Take a break, outline a new book BUT DON'T START IT!!!! If you do that you'll get into the bad habit of stopping and starting new stories will nilly. There is this great website called DollDivine, and on it you can create little stories using the dolls you make and the text boxes. I've found that this is a great way to have a 'Story' and actually keep writing stuff on the side. There are some really good ones on the site like 'The Love Story of Asgard', 'Audrey', and 'Ondine'.

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  3. There's a cute program out there called Written? Kitten! that encourages you to keep writing by rewarding you with a picture of a cute kitten every so many words. I've heard there's one with puppies, too.

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    1. Is there a panda version? And can you post a link? 'Cause that would make writing that much better.

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    2. Don't know about pandas, but here's the kitten one: http://writtenkitten.net/

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  4. From the website:

    Bibliophile- I've never actually heard of Google Machine... but yes, I probably should start with looking for exotic names. When I Google search, usually, I just look at the very first page on the computer and if nothing is useful, search for a different meaning for a name. *Noting to myself* Random syllables make good combo.
    Oh and the villain is a female so... :D!
    Eliza- I know what you mean. When I do Google the name meaning it usually just says something like Mara (meaning bitter... which why would you name your child bitter, either? I have a cousin who's middle name is that and I always have wondered). I can totally relate to you with the villain's name needing to sound slippery. It just makes it right.
    My villain is female, and is sort of like Maleficent from the story Sleeping Beauty, (My story is not a twist on the story of sleeping beauty, though) you know, green magic sparks, outfit blackish etc.
    Also, if you have any suggestions for names for books, movies, shows etc. I'd be grateful.
    ~Writer At Heart

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    1. Haha, Google Machine is just what I call Google. Sorry for the confusion.

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  5. Michelle Dyck and Elisa, sorry I couldn't comment on the previous post. You both helped me a lot! I have more insight on what I'm going to do with the time intervals.

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  6. Eliza, yes there will be stories for the younger princesses. Here are the names of my 12 Princesses, and the fairy tales retold in their POV:

    Noelle- TTDP & the Nutcracker
    Aspen- The Snow Queen
    Juliette- Snow White
    Eleanor (Elle)- Alice in Wonderland
    Annabelle- Beauty and the Beast
    Marina- The Little Mermaid
    Elodie- Sleeping Beauty
    Rowan- Red Riding Hood
    Catalina- Puss n' Boots
    Aurelie- Rapunzel
    Gwendolyn- Peter Pan
    Cinda- Cinderella

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    1. Ooh, The Nutcracker. I haven't seen any retellings of that, aside from a Barbie movie. And The Snow Queen never gets enough attention. I've always loved the name Gwendolyn.

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    2. Yes, I'm not ashamed to say I was inspired to do a retelling of the Nutcracker from the Barbie movie. And I thought I would give the Snow Queen a try because I saw an interesting prompt from writingforward.com. If anyone is interested, its a prompt of Harry Potters and Star Wars, and I did my own twist on it. Its not really the original Snow Queen, but it still has many aspects of it. And I love the name Gwendolyn too! I was thinking of naming her Wendy, but I didn't name any of the characters directly after the fairy tale character, so I changed it to something similar.

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    3. Oops! I wrote Harry Potters. I meant Harry Potter. If you go to the website (writingforward.com) and search Harry Potter, or the entry name From 101 Creative Writing Exercises: Potter Wars, you should get the prompt. Its pretty neat in my opinion.

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    4. Don't be ashamed of watching Barbie movies! (My fave is the Island Princess!) But yeah, they do have great retellings of fairy tales. Rapunzel by them was good too.

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    5. The good thing about Barbie and other children's franchises, like Disney, is that they introduce fairy tales and other stories to you at a young age. And then you hit middle school and discover the older, grimmer version. Pun very much intended.

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    6. Wow, you're right! That prompt was very interesting, Tania Abraham. I'm a big Star Wars fan and am very fond of the Harry Potter series, but I was still amazed that those two stories actually start out at the same point. That was amazing! Thanks for sharing it. :D

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    7. Bibliophile and Eliza, I think Barbie fairy tale movies are so inspiring!
      Lydia, your welcome!

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  7. Wow, this post was really helpful! Thank you so much Gail.

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  8. 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?

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    1. 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.

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    2. I'm adding your question to my list.

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    4. Sorry about that last comment – typo…
      I think one of the things you might include, as long as it didn’t get too complicated, would be hard times, too. Like, if something tragic happened to your MC, you could show her boyfriend comforting her. Or show the boyfriend making a sacrifice to provide something that your MC direly needed. I completely fell in love with Darcy, In Pride and Prejudice, when I saw all the work Darcy went through to protect Elizabeth’s family from scandal. It really showed how good he was and how much he loved her.

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  9. 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?

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    1. 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.)

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    2. 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.

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    3. Thanks so much Elisa and Eliza! That actually really helped--I've finally got a rough scene written (yay!)!! :)

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    4. I'm adding your question to my list.

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  10. First off, I love that little metaphor with the spider's web, for some reason. :)
    Second, I have two questions.
    1: 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 supervillain, 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?
    2: You mentioned that you had Ella go to Gnome Caverns and that you spent 180 pages there. My question is: How much, if any, of that cut writing with the gnomes eventually made its way into Fairest?

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    1. I've added your first question to my list. For the second, the idea of Gnome Caverns came from those pages, but I don't think any of the actual writing did. It's hard to remember, though.

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    2. maybeawriter-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.
      Gail-Out of curiosity, just how long is this list now? I'm picturing a lengthy word document.

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    3. Gail- Thanks! :) Haha, I can just see Sir Peter in this place where gemstones are used as currency.
      Eliza- Thank you for the advice. They aren't up to kissing yet, so maybe I'm not as far off as I thought. :) My question still applies in general, though.

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  11. Eliza--There are only a few pages of questions I haven't gotten to yet, but the whole list from the earliest days of the blog is 114 pages long!

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    1. Thanks for taking the time to answer so many of our questions!

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  12. I've been working on a story for almost a year now...and I keep starting over and changing it, and now I have no idea what to do with myself. I WANT to keep writing my story...but I'm having a hard time with it. Should I take a break? Or keep going? I just don't know what to do... :/

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    1. I would keep going, but writing a SHORT story (no more than 500 words) would be a nice idea for a break. Challenge yourself to see if you can do under 500!

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  13. Since there seems to be a lot of helpful writers on her, I was wondering... what do you do with a characters parents during a story? I wanted to write about kids- 15, 16, 17, something like that- and I don't want to kill of their parents. That's cliche and kind of mean. But I also don't want to take the parents with them on their adventure. I can't write adults and don't want to try. I'm only a junior writer trying to make a story for fun. What can I do besides give the parents some horrible fate? I guess they could just give consent and let their kid go on an adventure- but I can't imagine my parents doing that. And I was kind of expecting the adventure to be a suprise or a mistake for everyone involved. I don't NEED answers, but I would appreciate some tips.

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    1. In my current WIP, the teenage characters are fairly independent. The girl has been on her own for about four years; she left her home on the farm at age 14 to get a musical education in the nation's capital. It had been her dream, and her parents consented to it. She visits them from time to time, but she is unable to let them know about the quest before they embark, so they simply find out later. One of the boys is already technically an adult and is in guard training; he doesn't live with his father anymore, and his father would not object to his going on such a mission, anyway. The other boy's father died three years ago, and he is the primary provider for his family. His stepmother yields to his judgment in the matter. His younger sister simply sneaks off after her brother.
      So, yeah. Four out of six parents living (not counting the second boy's birth mother), and none of them on the quest. That's how I handle it.
      Good luck! :)

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    2. One thing to mention: It would be nice for there to be more books in which the parents are actually interacting with their kids. Just a thought. However, some things our young MCs' do cannot be done while a GOOD parent is around (Such as super-dangerous things like jumping off of cliffs and sneaking through an enemy camp for info, cause what kind of parent would allow that, aside from a complete scoundrel?) Some solutions to the parent problem: The parent or parents are sick, or invalids. Thus the children naturally do not have to deal too much with them interfering (especially if an aunt or uncle cares for the parent). Another thing is that, in the good old days, kids were apprenticed to people, sometimes that were hundreds of miles away (though that was a bit rare). Also, boarding school is another way to deal with meddling parents. If the kid has a job, that could also be a good way of doing it (s/he is away a good deal of the time working, though they'd have to be reasonably old for this, depending on the time period your setting is in/based on. Twelve and up is usually pretty good). Or the family got separated somehow, in a skirmish of rebels, or an attack by Indians, or simply when the oldest kid took the rest to the bathroom and everyone got lost and mixed up, and the parents left thinking the oldest kid had the younger ones, only she thought they did and only had two actually with her...

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    3. The parents also don't always need to be out of the way, either. Sometimes they can actually be a part of the story. Say you have a character who is a soldier--his father could be the general. That gives his father some character, and can add to the subplots, such as does the MC feel pressure to perform? Does he not like the attention he gets for being the general's son, and so tries to distance himself from his father? Is he rebellious? Is he proud of his father's accomplishments? Does this motivate/effect the MC's reasons for going on a quest? The list goes on!
      (I hope this actually helped--it's rather late and I'm sorry if I ended up rambling!) Good luck with your story!!

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  14. Any other Camp NaNoWriMos here? :D

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    1. Well, last year I found out in the middle of Nov., so I just spent a little time on a novel I had already started. Not really anything official. I'll do it this year!

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    2. Have you heard about Camp NaNoWriMo? There's one going on this month, and another in July. It's the same "Write a novel in a month" deal, but with an adjustable word count. You should go check it out! :)

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  15. Hey, everybody, I have a question. It's not related to Mrs. Levine's blog. But when she was needing names for her new book, everybody came up with some really good ideas. A friend of mine is working with me to set up a blog in which we'll be writing book reviews, and we really need a good name, but we're stumped. Any ideas? We're not reviewing a specific genre of books (though there will be a lot of fiction and teen fiction that we review). Mostly we'd just like a fun name for our blog that describes what the blog is about.
    ~Thanks!

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