Ending the Never Ending Story

When a new idea for a book grabs me, I dwell on it for a few days, or maybe a week or two in my spare time as work on the kind of writing that makes money (technical training). However, soon I realize I will forget the scenes that I have dreamed up if I don’t start writing them down. When I start writing a novel I know how the characters are going to change by the end. But, I don’t know the manner in which this will occur. So, I usually do not know the ending.

Each author has their idea of how to create a fictional character, story, setting, and so on. I do not want to duplicate what has already done, so I don’t read other fiction during this time. My process is to come up with a general outline, and yet remaining flexible. I dwell on my ideas for a few days, or weeks, until the first part of the book coalesces in my mind. Then, I start creating a list of scenes. Then comes the task of creating very short synopsis of each one. However, I often get ahead of myself and write them out completely only to realize they have to be changed because the events in them are out of order.

Writing character driven novels means the plot requires adjustments as I create the story. As I continue to think of how the story should unfold I go back and edit earlier scenes to fit with later events. Inevitably, I start moving scenes around, even if they don’t need to be. That is when I start creating a calendar with important dates. When I have enough for about thirty to fifty percent of a book, I start trying to pin down the ending, because if I don’t, the plot seems to go on infinitely. 

I don’t finish stories with everything settled and calm. Nothing seems to be dramatic enough to call it quits. The big event that wraps up the story often changes the world for the main character. They are heading off to college or off to a new country. Only occasionally do they return back to the place they came from to receive praise from people who ignored them in the past. It seems enticing to take my character further into this new world, but I must resist the temptation to do so.

Ending the never-ending story is a challenge that I’ve face with most of my works that are more than short stories. There is always one loose end to tie up before the last word. I’ve learned to identify my major conflict and make sure it is resolved. I’ve learned that all loose do not need to be explained. I can even acknowledge that the main character will never know the answer to certain questions. Leaving parts unknown does not stop the end of a story.

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The Pleasure of Rereading Books

As a child I used to read Black Beauty repeatedly. This book sat open on my lap when I was supposed to be taking a nap with my head on the desk in first and second grade. Each time I reread it, I wanted to get the same sensation I had before. But, it’s actually a difficult book for a first or second grader to read and comprehend all the finer points. So, I learned new things each time. Honestly, I didn’t understand the cab driver’s political comments concerning blackguards until I was much older. However, I was so impressed with this book that I decided to search for more works by the same author. Unfortunately, it is the only book that Anna Sewell wrote.

One of my more enjoyable times as a mother was picking up a book that I enjoyed as a child, and reading it to my children. These were not just short books but lengthy ones like The Hobbit by J.R.R Tolkien. I felt like I had a legitimate excuse to laze around with my children and reread old favorites.

I read through anthologies for a taste of works by newer authors. I find that I am more demanding when reading a novel by an author with a reputation. I acknowledge that the lesser known ones may be starting out, and there is still the possibility of growth. Finally, I tend to seek out far more stand alone novels than series, having accepted the mournful fact that only one of the series will be my favorite. This sense of disappointment is intensified  after I have discovered that it is the first one in the series.

When I choose an unfamiliar book author, I take the risk of discovering that I ‘m not fond of it. Then, a decision has to be made. Is it good enough to keep reading just to find out what happens? Will I regret the decision as I will never get that time back? So, I teeter back and forth trying to decide if my new venture in reading will pay out or not. Usually, if I find the book not to my liking, I continue to read for a few more chapters. If it still does not interest me within that time, it is added to the did not finish pile. If I am rereading an old favorite book, I don’t have to worry about that. So, now I am rereading To the Lighthouse years after I first encountered Virginia Wolff while attending college.

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The Artist’s Hierarchy of Needs

Have you ever seen the “Artist’s hierarchy of needs?” It is based on Maslow’ structure; however, the basic need for a self-actualization, or achieving one’s full potential including creative activities, is the point at the bottom on which the whole triangle balances. Creativity comes first, the food, water, shelter and sleep are at the top, or the last needs to be fulfilled.

If you are planning to use November to write a 50,000+ word novel that is suitable for publication without many months more of rewrites, you will need to abide by the topsy-turvy hierarchy of needs for this entire month. Participating in the NaNoWriMo challenge, may mean that time spent cooking, cleaning, sleeping and even bathing will have to be curtailed in order to find more time to write.

However, over the years I’ve found ways to increase my written output. So, I do have some advice for those that want to attempt this impossible challenge. The easiest way to create content in the least amount of time is to write what you know. Your own life story may not be that interesting, so don’t feel confined to the truth. If better ideas spring up, or you decide to appropriate events that happened to friends or celebrities, remember that you are writing fiction, not a real autobiography. With a word processor you can use the search and replace feature to alter names and appearance of the people after you are finished. This also relieves the fear of being shunned by family members who don’t appear in the best light.

However, even when writing a novel based on your own life you need a plot. There must be a challenge that you face or a problem to overcome; whether you succeed, fail, or just accept your fate..The story line found in Cinderella is often used. It starts out with recalling an event that shifted your life from pleasant to some degree of miserable. Then, after three nights at a ball—make that three different attempts to overcome the problem—you encounter one last disaster, run away and prepare for defeat. However, your fortune shifts due to someone’s gallantry or pure grit on your part.

Your idea for a novel based on your own life still will need embellishment. To complete this within a month will require planning. The initial troubling event, each of the attempts to overcome the problem, and the final triumph each require multiple scenes. Perhaps you wish to write a scene each day. The number of scenes covering the first two sections will have more for the last section with the resolution. There might be 10 scenes introducing the problem, and 16 scenes in the attempts to solve it. Then, for the ending stretch, when fortune shifts, only 4 scenes would be required.

Even if you hit the goal of 50,000 words, you will still be less than halfway to a new novel. The next few months will be consumed editing and rewriting until this morass of words makes sense and flows in a manner to keep the reader interested. Still, I wish you the best of luck!

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The Villain’s Motive

There are multiple ways of uncovering how a person can become a villain. I can look at my own life and see what others did to harm me or what I have done to them by preventing them from accomplishing what they wanted. I may think that is not like a villain because it wasn’t a horribly vicious thing. However, I assume that I deserve what is good more than others do and therefore justify my own bad behavior.

A wise person once pointed out to me that people who refuse to acknowledge their own shortcomings, become the cruelest when persecuting other people for their faults. Interestingly, we may criticize real people that perform the same corrupt actions as we do, but we will attach ourselves to fictional characters like ourselves. So the reader who constantly seeks villains who either want to rule or destroy the world may not be as common as writers assume.

Two of my favorite villains are Javert in Les Miserable in Les Miserable and Roger Chillingworth in The Scarlet Letter. Let us look more closely at the appeal of these literary villains. Javert assumed any effort to chase down a petty thief who had repaid society for his crime was justified. Chilllingworth secretly tormented the man who he assumed had seduced his wife when he had been absent for years himself. In both cases the villain never confessed to reveal their motive for persecuting the protagonist. But, their was no need to. Their crime was lack of compassion. They both thought they were justified in their pursuit of the protagonists, who had fallen down into the slippery slope of a bad situation..

That is actually the mark of an excellent writer—being able to produce villains who see themselves as right, and yet the audience sees through their façade and realizes their depravity. Sometimes, this is done by having the villain be insane. But, one must really understand mental illness for this character to ring true. It is more likely that a person who seems perfectly normal has decided on a course of action that is cruel to others with an ultimate cause that they rationalize as good. However, this ultimate cause is actually self-promotion.

How does a writer make a character seem villainous? Have them do selfish things that hurt other people and show that they simply don’t care about this at all. They might have the attitude that other people aren’t really important as they are and don’t matter. Therefore, these characters see committing destructive acts as being justified. The skillful author knows how to reveal that there is no actual justification for becoming evil.

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A Likable Villain?

Authors sometimes seek villains that their audience can identify with because they want the readers invested in the villain. This helps to propel a person to finish a book if they really don’t know what is going to happen to the antagonist in the end. The unprincipled conformist is a character popular among his fictional cohorts. This antagonist pushes the boundary of right until he veers onto the side of wrong. What makes this character so villainous? Conformity requires that a person at least appear to follow a set of rules. A required similarity can mask the truth about a person who actually harms other people, especially those within the group.

The nature of this harm can express itself in a number of ways. One of the most common is the exclusion of people for insignificant reasons. In order to create a strong camaraderie a common enemy needs to be found. There are two reasons that people do this: one is the ancient reason that wars exist–so one group can take something of value from other people. Exclusion allows this group to justify their gains at the expense of others. The second reason is to shift the blame for any problems onto an outsider who becomes the scapegoat.

In the end both of these actions destroy the group. Whether the exclusion is used as an excuse to take away wealth or credit or influence from the other person, or simply a social snub, it results in physical pain. This person who hurt will not sit there and take the abuse. The excluded people will avoid interacting with those people, even if they would prefer to fit in.[1] When this targeted person leaves the town, the group must seek out a fresh scapegoat. The villain continues to lead them in this process until his guile is uncovered, or the apparently cohesive group crumbles from the inside out. The unprincipled conformist harms others by squelching individuality. In the end people tire of being controlled and turn against the villain.

Exactly how is the unprincipled conformist brought to a demise? This job falls on the rebel with a cause, also known as the principled nonconformist. This protagonist persuades the followers who have been tricked into supporting the villain to pull out their support. The reader becomes sympathetic to the people that really do not want to follow this leader who will use and destroy them. At that point the villain becomes very unlikeable. So readers cheer at the stirring speech of revelation about the villain’s true intent. The physical fight between protagonist and antagonist may not be necessary because former followers bring down the unprincipled conformist.

[1] Eisenberger, N. I.  (2012)  Broken hearts and broken bones: A neural perspective on the similarities between social and physical pain.  Current Directions in Psychological Science, 21, 42-47,
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Favoring rebellious heroes

As much as people are willing to mimic the behavior of others in order to fit in, they often secretly wish for the strength to show dissent. We admire the person who has the guts to do what we dare not do  – challenge group norms. So the heroes of novels are often the wildcards, impetuous, untamed but with a good heart. We love to cheer on these principled rebels.

They challenge both higher ups and friends, not because they are disloyal, but because they want to incite those with power to help others. In fiction the hero often sways the fence-riding group to rebel against the villain by the use of stirring altruistic words. And, sometimes the hero engages in a knock-down, drag-out physical fight, too. But what occurs in real life? In a true uphill struggle by the minority voice of dissent to influence the majority, the rebel with a cause must be consistent. Consistency is not necessarily the hobgoblin of small minds.

Group dynamics affect the challenge of being a real-life rebel with a cause. Social groups tend to seek consensus so that everybody can get along. The fact that everybody else seems to hold the same opinion provides enough validation for most people to follow a leader. Once they have committed themselves, they don’t really want to hear someone who questions their ideas. In the novel, when the hero questions the consensus, they run the risk of being excluded. This of course creates a nice plot twist. Although the hero will not change colors, those that back this character risk exclusion, too. Just as in real life, the group excludes those supporting the person who questions their authority.[1]

Persistence on the part of the minority is their major weapon. The majority group starts with the assumption that the rebel is not correct but the persistence on his or her part creates a conundrum. “How can they be so sure and yet so wrong?”[2] If the rebel view is going to have any chance of gaining a following the supporters must remain consistent over time. If sticking to their guns is seen as attention seeking, or a rigid belief rather than consistency, it will fail.

Also, the rebel with a cause does not have the luxury of both ‘winning friends’ and ‘influencing people.’ Rebels may influence others by remaining adamant in their position, but most people will not like them. And, the rebel hero must remain strong when punished by the status quo. Any attempt to gain support through appeasement may result in influence going down the drain.[2]

Basically, the uniform view of the majority is never as solid as it appears. Many people conform not because they agree with the large groups, but because they fear exclusion. However, timing is everything when trying to convert private dissenters into open rebels. This works in fiction plots as well. The hero must speak up before members of the group have a chance to act based on the mistaken majority beliefs. When people comply with a demand, and then someone criticizes that demand, they tend to take the criticism personally.

It is those waffling fence-sitters who cling tightly to their fence that are most willing to admire the person who dissents on principle.[2] When the rebel with a cause voices an opinion that they secretly hold, these secondary characters slide off the fence in his or her direction. They have a sense of liberating relief that they can now do the right thing.

 “Indeed, people may speak up and dissent from important group norms not because they want to be difficult and destructive, but because they care for the group and its future.”[3]

[1] Levine, J.M. and Vernon L. Allen, V.L. (1968) Reactions to Attitudinal Deviancy, Report from the Per Group Pressures on Learning Project. Vernon L. Allen, Principal Investigator. Wisconsin Research and Development Center for Cognitive Learning, The University of Wisconsin

[2] Nemeth, C. J. & Jack A. Goncalo, J.A. (2011) Rogues and Heroes: Finding Value in Dissent.  In J. Jetten, and M.J. Hornsey,(eds) Rebels in Groups: Dissent, Deviance, Difference, and Defiance. 2011 Blackwell Publishing Ltd[1] Monin, B.and and O’Connor, K. (2011) Reactions to Defiant Deviants-Deliverance or Defensiveness? In J. Jetten, and M.J. Hornsey,(eds) Rebels in Groups: Dissent, Deviance, Difference, and Defiance. 2011 Blackwell Publishing Ltd

[3] Levine, J.M. and Vernon L. Allen, V.L. (1968) Reactions to Attitudinal Deviancy, Report from the Per Group Pressures on Learning Project. Vernon L. Allen, Principal Investigator. Wisconsin Research and Development Center for Cognitive Learning, The University of Wisconsin

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Woman on a tightrope

Recently the movie Not Okay hit a nerve by using “Unlikeable female protagonist” as one of the content warnings for its rating. What did the likability of the main character have to do with identifying the appropriate audience for this film? Nothing. This explanation was intended to be satirical, but it does point to a disparity in judging film and television characters.

There is a list of protagonists pulling off nastier stunts than faking a kidnapping. Misanthropic and pain-killer addicted Dr. Gregory House frequently disparaged his coworkers, exhibiting almost zero sympathy. Walter White was a down-in-the-dumps high school science teacher that fought the law rather than his cancer by manufacturing methamphetamines for sale on the street. People did not accuse them of being unlikeable male protagonists.

Why is there pressure to make female protagonists more likable than their male counterparts? A male protagonist can be anywhere on the range from handsome to ugly, sly to simple, strong to scrawny, or sophisticated to blunt, and still be considered likable as long as they show strength in at least one area. The female protagonist has to walk a tightrope.

The narrowest measure is that of beauty. But, this comes with subtle indicators that affect other characteristics. For example, the female lead can be physically strong but should not look musclebound. They can be older, as long as they look young. I recall an author showing off a cover with a female character that he assumed would read as a physically strong mature female. Her expression was tough, but her physical appearance was not, and she looked all of sixteen.

According to the Reysen Likability Scale, attractiveness is a major determinant of likability for females, and people are also pickier about the quantity of a woman’s laughter. The giggles of women in movies and films are reflected in real life. Women laugh as they talk, but not because they’ve found anything funny to laugh about.  

This trend has hit close to home for me. My novella about a very intelligent, but not attractive female sparring with an attractive, manipulative male gained the comment “your female character is not likable.” One person went so far to say, “The problem is that she has low self-esteem.” My character had the opposite problem. She understood exactly where her ability lay and refused to give into playing dumb.

Finally, one person grew brave and defended her, “She reminds me of Daria Morgendorffer. I actually like her because she’s different.” As a person who doesn’t spend much time watching TV, I had to research Daria. She is a cartoon character and a teenager who is a bit pessimistic, not interested in fashion, and unfortunately, knows how to use her brain.

In film, the ideal female seems to be gorgeous and not intelligent enough to realize how good she looks. We are long overdue for characters who break this mold.

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How Does Literacy Change Books?

The title may seem like a curious question. However, I wanted to trace how the increasing percentage of people who could read changes the publishing business. Do the types of books favored by the public change as a population becomes more literate?

Prior to the seventeenth century many books and shorter works were self-published. The author simply paid the printer, or scribe, and distributed the books themselves. There were fewer manuscripts go around. Authors writing fiction openly borrowed characters and plots from other writers without fear of copyright infringement. However, with smaller populations and an even smaller percentage of literate people, those that did read had a larger grasp of past literature. 

Literary canons based on the best works evolved because the people that read shared a bit more in common. Authors often alluded to works by other authors. These allusions allowed the readers to rapidly understand the situation in a book or drama. Even prior to the twentieth century people who spent time reading had different expectations from authors. They were willing to deal with more subtle writing and dig for clues that were not as obvious. They desired more complex stories which meant more reading between the lines. 

Within the twentieth century came the trend towards writing in a lean manner with concise descriptions. Part of this had to do with the availability of motion pictures in which there are not descriptions of the characters or setting. One simply looks at them. Much of the story is told through dialog. Now, people write books with the goal of them becoming  movies, full of action with minimal details. However, movies taken from past classics leave out huge chunks of the complex plots found in these novels. This becomes evident when watching films based on Les Miserables or Anna Karenina, and comparing them to their respective books. 

So, how does the increase in literacy affect what is written? The number of published books has exploded. Authors expect to have sole rights to their work, but cannot prevent a person from creating another fairly similar book. Readers seem willing to consume work that is more similar and familiar, with an ending they already know. Publishers are looking for these kinds of “comps.” There is no longer a reliable canon of work that most readers know in any particular culture. Therefore, the author has to explain the allusions to other works for these to be understood.

In the twenty-first century, there are five levels of literacy most often used in assessments, but recently the top two levels have been merged because such a small percent read at the top level. (https://www.wyliecomm.com/2021/08/whats-the-latest-u-s-literacy-rate/). Still, every so often a book is written that throws out the expectations. The scenes multiply the reader’s understanding rather than simply adding to it. In an extremely well written story, clues are added slowly so the reader has to think to catch on to what is occurring. Stories still exist that require the reader to be invested in making sense of them.

How many authors long to write a book that is more than the sum of its parts?

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Buying into a Binary

Writing which shows is almost always touted as superior to writing that tells. Examples of this are filled with intriguing dialog, exciting actions accompanied by descriptive detail filled with aromas, colors, and noises. On the other hand, telling explains who people are in an easy to comprehend manner and is described as plain vanilla. Some people forget that vanilla is also a spice. 

Often my romantic comedy scenes are filled with the quirky conversations interspersed with subtle movements. I include interior thoughts straight from the protagonist’s mind to inform the reader. That’s necessary because not all characters speak the truth. However, at one point in my story I switched the style to something more direct for a lengthy flashback about the leading man’s first crush. A beta reader noted a difference in the style of this chapter that she liked. There was almost no dialog and sparse details. Yet this passage related the events from a few weeks of his life in a manner that reflected the irony of the situation. I hesitated to tell her the truth about the difference but finally admitted, “I changed my style from showing to telling to cover events more quickly.” 

Of course, my confession runs completely counter to the adage that showing is preferable. Supposedly, showing draws the reader into the story and telling will pull them out of it. Some people are drawn to describing good-bad dichotomies that split anything in half, including the world’s literature. They want to create a binary down to the level of minutia to ensure that their work is unquestionably “good.” There are even lists of “telling” words.

Using “in” followed by an emotion is basically forbidden as a form of telling. The writer should say the woman clenches her fists rather than glares in anger. Which phrase is better depends on the point of view. The man standing across the room sees the glare long before he notes the marks left by fingernails digging into her palms. Also the reader doesn’t have to decipher that when a woman lifts their cheeks, curls up the ends of her lips and squints that she is smiling in glee. 

Near the top of the list of words that signal telling is “to” when used to form an infinitive.

“The man slammed on the brake to pull off the road.” — telling 

“The man slammed on the brake and pulled off the road.” — showing.

What is the difference? The first sentence provides a motivation that the reader could not detect if watching the man. It explains why he slowed down. The second example only provides what can be seen. Most readers don’t even notice the difference.

 The word “realized” is also a big no-no. A realization describes what a character is thinking inside and not just what they do on the outside. The examples that I found for replacing “realized” and other “telling” words lead to an insight of my own. Replacing phrases that were told with phrases that showed doubled or tripled the amount of words. So, stories that only show (if any actually exist) are huge volumes that readers may have a hard time wading through. Sometimes, the plot needs to move forward faster, so a direct style boosts interest. Authors choose which style to use based on the desired pace. And exactly what criteria do they use to decide this? Their own gut instincts. Creative processes don’t fit neatly inside little boxes.

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The Lead-footed Writer

In movies when an event is crucial to survival (such as disarming a bomb) the clock keeps ticking away on until the last minute as the hero tries to figure out which wire to cut. He wipes the sweat off his eyes so he can see. He may drop the wire cutters and have to retrieve them. Or, he pulls a Swiss Army knife out of his pocket to use instead. By the time this scene is over, the hero manages to sever the right wire at the last second. However, if I timed the scene, I would realize that more than one minute of actual time had passed.

A book which tells events, rather than showing them in detail, covers events much more rapidly so the pace of the story is technically faster. But, it also feels more distant for the readers as if they are not really involved. Showing minute details of events in clear focus slows down the story. In fact, it slows it down so much that this treatment needs to be reserved for the more dramatic and important occurrences, such as disarming a bomb.

The way I string together words and the type of words I use also contribute to the “pace” of writing. Longer sentences with a plethora of subordinate clauses provide an intellectual sound. The reader takes more time to ponder the ideas presented, which gives the impression of complexity. This also forces the reader to slog through the work. Short sentences with direct verbs may be the antidote; however, few readers can stomach an entire work of short choppy bursts. When dependent clauses are avoided, flow is sacrificed. The trick to dealing with pace is knowing when the writing can be improved by putting on the brakes—to let the reader savor the experience of reading—or speeding up the pace for drama. Inserting a four word sentence between two long ones creates an interesting contrast.

I can create separate scenes that place the reader in the middle of the actions to describe each part of an event as it happens. Or, I can write exposition, which are passages that explain events by telling the story. Sometimes, I find a brief explanation of the good-bye letter from a loved one who has left to seek fame and fortune followed by the discovery of missing money from a bank account is not going to work a exposition. Both events need to be separate scenes with all the tearful and incriminating details. At other times the plot is stretching out too much. I collapse scenes into a few paragraphs, and then the story flows better.  How do I know when to do each of these? I don’t. It is a matter worked out by trial and error.  

When I drive a car, alternating rapidly between the gas and brake jerks the car uncomfortably. However, a sudden change in the pace of writing does not have the same effect as a lead-footed driver. So, the best advice on the pace of writing is to not keep it the same.

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