I can quit writing anytime. I know that, because I quit every day about the same time. At least my fingers cease to hover over the keyboard and I stop arguing with the curser flashing as if to say, “Well? Is that all you have to say, really?” I know that sounds like an addict explaining his habit, but that’s because there are a lot of us who are addicted to writing and to its flip side, reading. [Contrary to some beginners’ beliefs, you can’t do one without the other. The idea that reading others’ works will somehow taint or influence their own “style” is nonsense. I have often thought—if only!]

  A friend gave me a plaque that says, “A room without books is like a body without a soul.” That pretty much says it all. I look about my home, and I realize that I have given “soul” to every room, even the tiny alcove. Books are everywhere, in places lovingly alphabetized and in other places haphazardly stacked, some read and reread and others waiting to be read. It was the love of books and the escape from shyness that hooked me on reading as a child, and in some cases rereading a familiar old friend. It was acknowledging how the stories made me feel that gave me the need to give some of that back. I have been blessed with an abundance of words—average ones like hurdle and yell and exotic ones like serendipity and Izztacihuatl. Yes, I said NEED. I need to write as I need to breathe. I need to take the chaos that is life and turn it upside down and inside out and figure out myself and others.

There are those who are under the illusion that authors are wealthy, and some few are. The old one-percent theory holds true here, too. Perhaps ten percent that pursue writing as a career support themselves. Most supplement the royalties with side jobs, and if they are lucky these are jobs that relate to writing. The need to write and to share it with others drives those who stick with it day after day, year after year when we understand that the odds are against us. We must go through a maze of agents, editors, editorial committees, and even when we actually get published there are critics, booksellers, and library selection committees. We never really know what will spark the readers’ attentions and actually earn big bucks. I’ve asked editors of such books what the secret is and none have the answer, admitting surprise that one of theirs actually made it. Of the thousands of books published every year many are out of print within six months, only a handful makes it to the bookstores. So why do we do it?

People write for individual and personal reasons. They quit writing for individual and personal reasons. As a mentor and teacher for many years I encouraged them to keep writing no matter how many rejections they got. I realize now that I was wrong. Those who are able to quit and move on to paint, bake or sew their creativity should. The born-to-write people will continue to write in the face of adversity without my nudging. Those who write for fame and fortune generally are disappointed and turn to some other activity that answers their need for creativity. Some few who have the financial means and the energy to sell to friends, relatives and a few strangers get tired of the pursuit and self-publish, which has its own problems. The rest are driven to write continue, even with no promise of an audience. Until someone holds a telethon to eradicate the writing bug we are doomed to continue whether we call it a blessing or a curse. We are aboard our own version of The Flying Dutchman, whether or not we ever manage to touch that port/publisher. So be it.

I’m glad that I tried to stop again because it made me take the time to reevaluate why I write. It was an eye opener. I realized that it was not the contracts, not the nice reviews, not another volume on the shelf. I write because it is WHO I am, not WHAT I am. How about you? Why do YOU write?


If characters are the engine that drives the story, motivation is fuel. It is especially true when plotting a mystery, suspense/thriller. We concentrate on the motivation of the justice-seeker, whether s/he is in law enforcement or an ordinary everyday person [child, teen or adult]. As the reader we are concentrating on the investigator. As the writer we must keep the motivation of every one of our characters.

The perpetrator’s motives are just as important to understand as those of the main character. Whether it is a thief who does it for the money, out of boredom, etc., or a murderer who kills for hire or to avoid exposure or any number of reasons that are unfathomable to people considered “normal,” as writer we must realize that to them their motivations seem reasonable.

The side kick has an important role, even if it is so the main character doesn’t have to internalize everything or appear to be talking to himself. They often bring out alternatives to the action of the main character: “Let’s get out of here!” Their motivations will be shown only on the surface, but they are there. Are they tagging along because they need love, approval, validation? Why do they stick around when things get dangerous? Fear of rejection? Even if they are there to be a sounding board or a mirror for the main character we the writer should understand them. Their motivations will be revealed through their actions and dialogue.

Characters have lived everyday life up to the time when we “tune in.” They come to the story already motivated. For the primary child, the motives will be age appropriate and probably more self-orientated. For adolescents, they will have more mature motivations. The teens will adult. And for adult fiction there have been more ambitions and eye-openers and probably disappointments. All of these go into creating the motivations and personalities. As mystery writers we definitely need a backstory on our characters. Why does our main character try to find the culprit herself instead of calling the police? It’s the consequences of failure plus the sum total of her life’s experiences—motivation.

  Let’s take a plot idea and see what might happen. The situation is an extremely valuable one of a kind book has is missing from the rare books collection in the library.  It’s a signed copy of Mark Twain’s first book with marginal notes by the author himself [don’t we always wish we’d said something a bit better after the books is published?]. Since we want this to be an ordinary person doing the investigating, we create a special collections librarian, one who isn’t exactly up on her people skills [create a suitable backstory that makes it seem reasonable]. Why wouldn’t she call the police?

If she did you can still keep her involved because with violent crimes rampant they will not put a non-violent crime first in priority [unless you want someone to have been killed during the robbery].  You could complicate it with a time limit—the library is having a gala fund raiser on the occasion of Twain’s birthday [a month away] and the volume will be displayed for the first time since its acquisition. You could bring in a detective in the robbery division [looking to get a promotion]. If you want it to be a romantic suspense, he’s eligible [a really good backstory!] or if not, maybe bring in an older guy who was forced to retire but wasn’t ready.

Before the story is over you need some physical threat [both the librarian and the thief will need strong motives to bring that about. And the librarian, our heroine, will need a stronger motivation to take that risk. Is keeping her job a strong enough motive? There are only so many special collections jobs in the world, but there are other things she could do using her special skills

It’s got to be a stronger motive, otherwise call the insurance agent and collect and move on. It must be stronger still. It needs to be something that would shake her very foundation if she fails. It’s personal. If she is to walk into the lion’s den it will have to be unique to her. I have read far too many mystery books where the heroine tromps up to the killer armed with nothing but a few nasty words and for no reason other than she likes to solve mysteries. It just makes her look stupid and the author look lazy. Her wellbeing, her life as she knows it, must be the consequence of failure. Motive, Opportunity and Method aren’t exclusively the clues to solving a mystery. They are the keys to characters we will care and root for.

Curiosity is a good immediate motivator to get the ball rolling in mysteries and suspense, but when the main character or someone they love is under threat it is not enough motivation to keep digging. Then it becomes a case of self-preservation. It must seem reasonable to the reader that they don’t call the authorities. Perhaps it will put them, a loved one or something greater than themselves in jeopardy.

Duty to a cause or country, although commendable, usually needs you to dig deeper into the protagonist’s backstory to discover why the protagonist is so duty-bound, even in the face of real danger. Even philanthropists and benevolent people are motivated by some inner drive like seeking love or validation. Dig deep enough and your character will reveal vulnerability in self-esteem, regardless of his station in life.

We readers like to see the antagonist get his comeuppance from his own doing, but we don’t do revenge by individuals. We seek justice instead. Usually the main character has a hand in that, although he or she leaves the punishment to law enforcement or witnesses the perpetrator in a “biter bitten” situation. Perhaps he is snared in his own trap. Lonely revengers are big in some circles, but a good psychologically solid story with motivated characters will keep me turning the pages. When these motivations lead the character to the crossroads where life or death is the consequences of their decision, I’m in for the chill of it.

Mary Blount Christian has had mysteries published for beginning readers, teens, and adults. She teaches on-line and still writes.



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A woman [who was yet to put fingers to the keyboard] told me that her ambition was to write bestsellers while sitting on the beach—that is when she could find the time in her busy life. She didn’t say whether she intended to commit her prose directly onto a laptop or dictate her story to her assistant, who no doubt was a George Clooney lookalike. I enjoy a good fantasy now and then, too, but when it comes to the business of writing—and it IS a business, despite the feeling that we are compelled to do so by some unseen force—those of us under its spell know that there is a good deal more to the process than deciding that we’ll be fantastic and famous.

At least everyone else involved in the process considers it a business—the publisher who watches the bottom line the way a cat watches a mouse, the paper manufacturer, the printer, the binder, the editor, the bookseller, etc. But none of those just mentioned would be in the business if it were not for the writer. In other words, it is not a casual decision to become a writer, and for most of us it isn’t appearing on interview shows, giving readings to hordes, or rushing between book signings in limos. Nor is it, as television stories are fond of depicting, having your editor and/or agent spending the summer with you in the Hamptons to keep you on track. It is writing—sitting at your desk and writing and rewriting and rewriting some more.

The truth for most writers who are lucky enough to actually make a living at it is that they consistently put in more than forty-hour weeks and write through the flu, stomach viruses and broken arms. We have the most demanding, disciplined boss—ourselves. A friend who had the misfortune to break her arm requested the doctor cast it at an ergonomic angle so she could still type on her keyboard. And I once insisted on going home the morning after major surgery to write the final three chapters on a deadline. The point is, you must decide if you want to write as a hobby “when I get the time,” and perhaps be occasionally surprised by the serendipity of a sale, or consider it a profession and be prepared to work like you’ve never worked before.

If it is the former consider yourself a lucky duck. I wouldn’t for the world shame you for throwing away your talent. It is a tough, often times discouraging profession and one to avoid unless you are so dedicated that you can’t imagine yourself doing anything else. Enjoy those occasional moments of creative energy and use the rest of your time to enjoy life. But if you are one of us who are drawn to it as a moth to flame there are some realities to make note of. I already mentioned one of them—much longer hours. Not to say that those hours and work habits can’t be flexible. If a friend invites you to have coffee or lunch and a movie, plan on making up the time. But there is nothing wrong with learning to say no to afternoon movies, Saturday pink teas and neighborhood coffee klatches. A simple, “I’ve still have four hours work to do” may not win you any friends, but you can always send them an autographed copy when [note: not if] you sell. Chances are they won’t read it, but your conscience should be clear as crystal.

Let’s look at the difference between an amateur and a professional:
A professional is a self-starter and makes inspiration, creates ideas
An amateur waits for inspiration.
A professional keeps ahead of the current market needs and looks to future needs.
An amateur figures that there is always room for one more like what’s his name’s successful book. Caution: That newly published book could have been sold up to two years ago. It’s old hat to the editors.
A professional even if she doesn’t do a complete outline knows exactly what the climax will be before beginning.
An amateur rushes to the keyboard and starts writing [and often goes astray soon after].
A profession accepts that the manuscript he first writes is just that—a first draft, and is prepared to revise.
An amateur writes and sends it out, figuring the editor can make sense of it, or as an alternative refuses to change anything as it was “inspired.”

If you have read this far then send me your email with the heading “Book Drawing” and come August 22 I’ll draw one and send that one a signed copy of Arsenic and Old Silk, a cozy mystery that came out earlier this year.

#Writing, #AmateurWriter, #ProfessionalWriter, #FreeBook, #BookDraw, #WorkingWriter





Celebrating Thanksgiving and Christmas are so traditional to us that it may not seem like fodder for our stories. But these holidays bring family and friends together, and while we don’t like to think about it where there is family there is emotion and sometimes conflict.  Those sibling disagreements resurface: Along with the love and generosity demonstrated there is sometimes the unspoken or insinuated messages that children have disappointed parental ambitions, one is celebrating promotions or special honors while another  is mourning job loss, disappointment or a feeling of failure. The petty differences are magnified.

There are senses tested more—the spicy aromas of mulled cider, the unmistakable smell of turkey in the oven, the sharp scent of cranberries, a real tree and the tallow from candles. The sounds of laughter, the din of mingled voices and Auntie’s annoying laugh, dishes clattering and those sleigh bells attached to the door preceding the shout of “Don’t slam the door!” just before it slams hard enough to rattle the pictures on the wall. And then it is all over for another year. All of this is exaggerated, of course, for the sake of writer’s license to create conflict.

These are the details that form a background on which to build a story. Our writers’ group for Christmas brought a holiday themed story to our December meetings to read aloud, our gifts to each other. I found  in the exercise of remembering Christmases past that nearly every one of them contained drama that with a bit of tweaking would make unique stories. They varied from the year we postponed Christmas when my beloved collie Sable was stolen Christmas Eve to make some other child happy, perhaps. There was the year when I expected nothing at all with Dad away on war defense work and I woke to find a beautiful bicycle—and my Dad. There was the joy of creating a full Christmas dinner care package for my pen pal across the ocean  and getting a letter back that it all arrived in time for the holiday. The laughter we shared when she described preparing the popcorn for the first time in her life. Apparently the instructions failed to mention to use a lid on the pot. “We thought it was the blitz again,” she wrote. “We all took shelter under the kitchen table.” Then there was the mysterious gift she sent us. It took some research to discover that it was a “tea cozy.”

I’d learned something really special about my uncle after his death, that despite their lack of money and his physical affliction he brought a bit of Christmas spirit to a family with even less. I wrote that for my gift one year. The scene haunted me through Valentine’s and Easter, and that summer that story became the first two chapters of my middle grade novel, Growin’ Pains. It sold the first time out and was reprinted in several paperback editions and in Swedish language.  So as you prepare to celebrate and memories—positive and negative–come rushing back, don’t tuck them away with the tinsel and ornaments this year. Nourish them into your best stories ever. You have the opportunity to rewrite the disappointing and hurtful times and relive the good ones.

There are as many holiday stories as there are writers to tell them. Yours is unique because it is yours. There are many more holidays throughout the year, particularly during the school year when librarians and teachers are scrambling to find related material. Holidays that honor ethnic groups and environmental causes and personalities are received well. They needn’t be the main crux of the story; they make good backgrounds against which a rollicking good story of ordinary struggles play out, Happy writing



That sound you hear is probably my teeth gnashing. As readers we all have our pet peeves. My list may be more expansive than some: typos, clumsy sentences that I get lost in and must reread, and modern slang in a historical setting among them. But the one that really sets my teeth on edge is losing sight of the main character. That happens because the author first lost sight of the MC. If we are truly connected to our MC we are seeing through her eyes, hearing through her ears, etc. The only time we can truly see her is in the mirror. Otherwise, we experience BEING her. We absolutely cannot sit outside the story and write what we believe is going on. We get down in the trenches with the cast of characters, specifically shedding our own identity and imagining ourselves personally facing every challenge the MC faces. We ARE the main character.
As a reader I want to be lost IN a story, not lost because of the story.
If we are a damsel in the 15th Century, we are startled by the ring of the office phone [never mind that we are living through the computer screen; there are some things we just can’t change.]
Think about those senses we depend on to survive: sight, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching and you might add “good sense,” i.e. knowing through past experience and instruction what will happen if we behave in certain ways plus the ability to think through the possible consequences of those actions we might consider. All of these are within that single viewpoint.
As readers we want to experience the adventure; that means becoming the main character for the duration of the story. We are both reader and participant in the story. A part of us is alarmed when we realize that she is about to make a mistake that will change her life, yet as participant we walk down that dark hallway with no more than a fingernail file to protect ourselves.
As writers we need to be aware of the common mistakes that take that experience away from the reader. If we leap from head to head, telling why another character did what he did or told what he was thinking we have broken the bond between reader and main character. We have unwittingly divided loyalties. Stay inside your main character’s head, period. It raises the tension, maintains the suspense, and keeps the reader turning the pages.
Another sure-fire way to keep the bond is to begin and end in your main character’s viewpoint [that is inside your main character]. That goes for starting and ending every chapter with the action, inner thought, or dialogue of the main character. Call her by name before you mention anyone else. She is our anchor, our guide. If the reader is lost, she is liable to simply wander away from the story and never return.
We must learn everything about our MC. We must understand how past experiences color our present reactions. And we must do this before we start to write the story. Take some time to get acquainted with your main character—her likes and dislikes and his fears and strengths. Inventing them as you need them in the story makes them sound phony. You have an idea what will happen. You will create a character capable of handling the situation, perhaps badly at first but with the ability to call upon those inner resources to triumph eventually. Make sure those inner resources are there before the story starts.
Sometimes readers who are not professional writers feel disconnected with a story, although they are unaware that it is because the author has violated those simple necessities of viewpoint. We can’t always depend on an editor to catch those things [or I wouldn’t get so irritated with published stories.]
Once you have written your story, reread with an eye to viewpoint. Look at your verbs. Anything that requires the brain to actively interpret something belongs to viewpoint. If your secondary character “saw” someone coming or “heard” a siren, you have just meandered into another viewpoint. How can you fix that? Instead of saying he saw someone coming SHOW it by describing what he does or says:
Reginald shielded his eyes, gazing up the road. “Is that Agnes coming this way?”
When you stay within your main character’s viewpoint you have opportunities you wouldn’t otherwise have. Your MC is limited by her perceptions and projections when she sees someone else behave in a certain way. She can misinterpret a hasty reply or action, and that can increase tensions and create conflicts.
Some variances are more subtle than others and can slip past us, so we must remain vigilant. We know our MC’s motivations. We can only guess at everyone else’s.
I am reminded of an editor who said she received a manuscript with a cover page that stated “The characters in this story have no resemblance to persons living or dead.”
“That was exactly the problem,” she said.

FREE THE DRAGONS! The True Magic of Fairytales—Creative Thinking

An acquaintance believes that children should not be exposed to fairy tales—ever—because they are too scary. I so heartily disagree that I thought the subject worth pursuing here. These stories are as much a preparation toward independent survival as their playtime mimicking adult activities.
Yes, fairy tales have “scary” moments: the father abandons his children [Hansel and Gretel]. A predator attacks an unescorted little girl [Little Red Riding Hood]. A bully destroys siblings’ homes [Three Little Pigs]. The more powerful takes livelihood from poverty-stricken family [Jack and the Beanstalk]. But wait! Didn’t I just read that in yesterday’s newspaper? Didn’t I see that on last night’s television news? News flash: those kids seemingly busy on their computer games heard and saw that, too. Now that’s scary.

Fairy and folktales are no more than harsh reality in costume. They take the chaos that is life, buffer it with disguises, and demonstrate that sometimes the good guys win. Children who miss out on fairy tales and folk-lore may be cheated out of something vital to growing up, however well-intentioned the omission is. Fantasy not only stretches our imaginations [the forerunner of all invention] but nourishes our souls in a positive way. Watch children at play. They grab the nearest block or stick and pretend it is a gun. Take that away, and they still have their pointer finger, and they will aim and fire. They play out their fears the same way they play out being grownups with their toy lawnmowers and vacuums, still popular items at gift time. They rock their baby dolls, playing parents. I don’t see many wanting toy briefcases. Fairy tales develop the full array of emotions like empathy, tolerance, and a sense of right and wrong.

Most of us know the difference between fantasy and reality by age six. That stick figure your kids must do to pass from kindergarten into first grade is a Gestalt test for that. It’ll tell you a lot more than that, actually.

I am certainly not knocking non-fiction. I read and write it. It a great source for information, and, if done well, for entertainment. Non-fiction deals with THE TRUTH, facts about the world we live in, facts about the people who are part of our history, and the ugly side of our world that needs us to change it. TRUTH is why I entered the newspaper business in my youth. Caring about the “why” in the “who, what, when, where, and why” is the reason I turned to writing fiction.

We should not confuse “THE TRUTH” with “A TRUTH.” THE truth is often harsh and didactic: People, even children, die every day; bad stuff happens to good people; some people are brutally selfish; and bullies win at least temporarily. I have read picture books that had no purpose but to send readers on guilt trips. Most fortunately end up in a recycle bin. Pretending terrible things don’t happen every day is a fantasy world I have yet to live in. Luck is served on a platter to a privileged few in real life. It is also true that things work out for us sometimes if we find the right proportion of optimism, faith, and action. That is A TRUTH: Pride goes before the fall; evil is its own enemy, etc. Some of those original tales really are harsh, even brutal.

Peruse through an original collection of fairy tales, and you’ll find a homeless orphan freezing to death and any number of unspeakable horrors, basically the same sort of horrors we see thumbing through the current newspapers or browsing the web or television. Fairy tales and folk tales didn’t invent scary. They merely dressed up the innocent in a tiara and ermine and turned the predators into dragons and ogres. The good and evil battle it out in a place far away across time. It is a safe place, with an emotional draw bridge controlled by the young readers. “Once upon a time” is a safety net because it reassures the reader that it was long ago and the danger is past. Fairy tales are where we work out our fears and gain confidence in our strengths and abilities to face today’s versions. We know if it is too much to handle we can simply close the book. It is controlled chaos.

I can imagine that is how and why fairy tales and folktales came to be. Tales probably came about on those harsh winters were huddled near the fireplace, the men mended their tools of trade and the women mended clothes. They probably entertained the restless children with the cautionary tales they once heard and adapted with their own versions. These tales were oral and fluid and changed with the storyteller and the occasion. They became “classics” only when they were committed to print.

Take Little Red Riding Hood. It was and is a cautionary tale about befriending predators. [The wolf is always portrayed on two feet and in human clothes]. Put it in modern clothes on city streets as one publisher did, and it is still cautionary, but it is a terrifying read for even adults without altering a single original word; I can’t imagine putting it into the hands of a child. Yet the “once upon a time” in period costume reads the same with the same lesson but less threat. Many contemporary authors have revised it with humor, setting it in the west or in swamp country and even letting the wolf tell his own version of what happened. The old fairytales are once again fluid and adaptable to their audiences.
Yet they speak to contemporary children as they spoke to children decades ago. Kids then knew what kids know today: there is wickedness in the world. They know that their survival and ability to thrive depends on the more powerful, bigger people in their lives and sometimes on their own cleverness and ingenuity. They can make you a list of the unfairness in their lives, and not all of it is life or death situations: Tim gets picked on by Bobby and pushes back, and Mom punishes them both. A parent murders the family and the newspaper runs a smiling family portrait with the story. If we write these stories with contemporary settings, even if justice eventually prevails, I’m not sure they are as comforting as those old tales–certainly not for the younger children who know the injustices but haven’t the life experiences that we have with which to cope. But dress the scary up in royal robes, put a crown on their heads, and turn that grownup into a dragon or witch [see any psychology book on dreams] and kids get a safer version. They see the parallels with the Emperor’s New Clothes and today’s public reactions to just about everything.

In the story of Hansel and Gretel, the weak father deserts his children to fend for themselves. Hansel and Gretel is about abandonment and child abuse by parent and predator. Their wooden shoes and costumes are like a gossamer curtain that separates the readers from the harsh reality, yet the essence of the triumph over brutality remains. It is about kids using their noggins to get out of trouble. And it is about remorse [the father’s] and forgiveness [the kids’]. And it gives emotional satisfaction that the wicked get punished, even when they don’t always see that in today’s world. Sometimes it’s hope and faith that gets us through dark days of reality.

Jack in the Beanstalk is about righting an injustice [although I admit vigilantism is not the best example]. Jack redeems himself in his mother’s eyes when she thinks he is stupid for trading a milk-producing cow for a few beans. He defeats the giant [the bully who took his belongings] and brings home the goose that lays the golden eggs. Readers will take with them only what they can handle at the time: find the bully’s weakness and he can be defeated. All of these stories open up opportunity to discuss the rights and wrongs and let the reader think about what he would do in that situation.
The story of the three little pigs is a lesson in family dynamics as well as a subtle story of the industrial revolution and wise planning. Sibling rivalry is apparent, but when an outsider threatens the family unit, the family bands together. Then there’s the other more practical thread of building with sturdy materials, planning ahead and setting aside instant gratification to find a permanent solution worth waiting for. It is unfortunate that step mothers and wolves have gotten a bad rap in some of these. And most unfortunate that somehow ugly behavior is equated with physical ugliness. Contemporary writers can correct this in retellings. Why must Cinderella’s step-sisters be physically ugly? It sends the message that homely people, even physically infirmed, are not to be trusted. We writers have much to be aware of in our retellings.

Remove the costumes and the faraway settings, and you have today’s headlines of depravity and extreme cruelty. THAT’S scary. The happy ending could be months, even years away. Justice in fairy tales is swift and for the most part satisfactory.

The original “The Lucky Man” is a tale of sibling rivalry on steroids. The powerful brother comes off even more powerful and the hapless brother seeking legal relief is accidentally killed in the end. I found it in one of the rainbow fairy tale books. To give it a more hopeful spin I backed the story up one scene, wrote an alternative final scene, and justice prevailed. It was the essence of the original but with a more contemporary solution. And far more satisfying, I might add.
We writers can take a lesson from these stories of old and their application to current events. We can take any of the frightening realities of today, and then put them in the land far away and long ago or into the future in a space fantasy. A good story, no matter if it takes place inside a snow globe, tree house, or an undersea world, if good and evil are locked in a battle for dominance, will catch our readers’ interests.

If you are a writer for children, or if you are a concerned parent I recommend reading THE USES OF ENCHANTMENT: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales by Bruno Bettelheim; SHADOW and EVIL in FAIRY TALES by Marie-Louise von Franz; and THE WITCH MUST DIE: The Hidden Meaning Of Fairy Tales by Sheldon Cashdan.

By definition, fairy tales are those with imaginary creatures and beings and fanciful events where magic can happen. Folk tales are often cautionary tales and explanations of puzzling things [why there are birds of different feathers; why the sky rains, etc.] Even if the sky is green and the grass grows blue or anything else you can dream up, these magical lands have their own realities. Just as Achilles had his vulnerable heel, these gentle folk cannot solve their problems with a swish of the magic wand. They, like us, must use their ingenuity. Therein is the triumph.
If you intend to write your own version of a familiar tale do the research. Trace it back to the original version and make sure that your own twists and turns to it are not taken from a version still in copyright. [Modern copyrights don’t expire until fifty years after the author’s demise.] There are parallels to contemporary life. When you recognize that you are well on your way to your own version.
Yes, they are a little scary for those brief moments. The heart beat quickens and we wonder, will the witch eat her little brother? Will the princess die? But those magic words, once upon a time, have already signaled to us that there is no real danger. We learn empathy for others in The Little Match Girl. We learn a sense of justice, of right and wrong and safely observe the consequences of actions. We learn that tomorrow has promise, and that even the meek can win. And folk and fairy tales certainly nurture imaginations. I have never known a writer [and I recently polled all those in my acquaintance] who didn’t grow up with fairytales as an important part of their early childhoods. They are as basic to writers as learning scales and sonatas are to musicians.

Fairy tales may use dragons, ogres and anthropomorphized animals of your choice. They allow the child to vicariously control chaos in a safe environment. Those flying monkeys in The Wizard of Oz terrified my little daughter, but she never missed an airing as long as she could safely sit in my lap. I wonder how she could have faced life’s challenges head on and triumphed if I had denied her that practice run. The ogres may have taken on human form, but they are still in our lives. So is the will to overcome them. If they are too scary, why do they want the stories read over and over?

Children play dolls, mimicking what they observe in us as parents; they turn their hands into pistols in an effort to mirror life they see on the news, working through the problems they observe in a grownup world, the world of giants. With their stories, they step into the space suit or wear the crowns of royalty, but they are vicariously solving the same problems: self-doubts, advisories, and nature. Perhaps somewhere back in that supra-conscious level they remember that once upon a time in a land far away they tamed an ogre, and they find the courage to do it again. Release the dragons; we’re ready!


It is not uncommon for new writers [and the general public] to think that writing a picture book is so easy it shouldn’t take more time than the afternoon coffee break. I remember telling an illustrator that Maurice Sendak took six months working on the text of WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE before he ever picked up his sketch pad. She laughed and said, “I do that in a day.”

My response was, “And how many of those have sold, let alone become classics?” Picture books are deceptively difficult. My theory is this: the easier it reads the harder it writes. Those who approach writing for the young as something to throw together quickly to teach them some life lesson are doomed to fail—and well they should. When we reach out to touch children’s minds we have a responsibility to do it well. J.R.R. Tolkien, when asked how to write for children, responded, “Write as you would for adults, only better. “

First, know your audience. Children are neither little Goody Two-Shoes nor The Bad Seed. They already come with baggage, just not as much as we adult readers bring to a book. They have that keen sense of survival, meaning the need to love and be loved, to achieve and learn, to be respected for themselves and to respect others, and to feel secure emotionally, physically and spiritually. Keeping those needs in mind give you endless plots when you can throw obstacles between them and the child.

Second, remember that children learn by emulating grownups, not by being told “do as I say, not as I do.” That means that your stories SHOW the child what you want them to know and not just tell them. Forget your adult-speak. From the minute that the lecture begins [even if it is by the child character] the red flag of caution goes up: Grownup in the Room. Think action and logical or natural consequences [Psychologist Rudolf Dreikurs believed that discipline was a matter of mutual respect. You can still find his books on Amazon and in libraries. They are excellent for writers and/or parents.]

Third, let the child character figure out a solution to the problem. Unless it is something dangerous or physically impossible for a child let him solve it without the help of the adult. Life is not all sugar plums and sunny days. Solutions are not always happy ever after. We are obligated to recognize that sometimes we take an alternate solution. Jean Karl, a grand dame of editors years ago, said that we should write, recognizing how things are but showing how things might be. [I’m paraphrasing as I leant out the book and it never returned, but that’s the gist of it.]

Fourth, demonstrate that the child has achieved something important through action-none of those “and little Johnny never again crossed the street without a grownup” endings.

Remember, kids are smart. You can be subtle, and they get it. As a classroom teacher for decades I have seen too many adult hang-ups aimed at the primary readers. [The puppy doesn’t HAVE to die because the child left the gate open; the child can catch the puppy through ingenuity and the message is still loud and clear]. There is virtually no subject that cannot be a theme; it is a matter of seeing it through the child’s understanding according to her age. That’s probably a good subject for a future article.

Before you sit down to write for the primary child you should look at the world from their point of view. Drop to your knees by your favorite chair or the dining table. Now look up at the ceiling. It got a lot farther away, didn’t it? Try getting in your chair from that position. Suddenly it became a big deal. The world is a lot different when you live in a giant’s world. You feel a lot less power and a lot more dependent on the good will of others. Your brain is still working; you know things are unfair, so you want to believe that the best is yet to come. Keep that in mind as you think about writing for the primary child.

Think about their limitations. They are told when to get up, when to go to bed, and when to eat and if they can play. Their world is their home, neighborhood, day care, elementary school, and church, and places adults take them: doctor, dentist, or grocer. Their transportation is trike or bike or hike. Subjects and situations they can identify with include Family [their place in the nuclear family], neighbors, God. They always want to know what it will be like next year. Their humor is still pretty primitive, but they like exaggeration [numbers and actions, for instance].

Picture books have many levels. The surface level is the series of related, gradually more challenging, events. But the emotional level is there, too. One emotion overcomes another emotion and leads to triumph. For instance the boy’s love for his cat is more powerful than his fear of heights, and to climbs the tree to free his cat from the vine. The understanding, then, is that he has overcome a troublesome obstacle in his life and has found courage to tackle future challenges, too. To be a stronger story it needs both levels.

Successful picture books appeal to adults as well as children of all ages. The adult will be called on to read the book over and over, so that it had better have adult appeal. Older children return to books from their primary years and find the many levels and depth of meaning, too. Brother against brother, human against nature—these are the same themes in adult novels tackled on a child’s level of understanding. Next time you pick up that “easy little 700 word story” look twice. You just might see more the second time around.

As a writer you become that child. You take the readers hand and explore with them, seeing it all for the first time instead of towering over them and watching them explore. Only then do you truly reach your audience. I cherish that little boy who came up to me after a school visit and said, “You had me fooled. I thought you were one of us.” I could truthfully respond, “It’s our secret, but I am.”



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I climb the stairs to my office and turn on the computer. As I begin to type the room and everything in it fades and disappears. It is morning in the valley, and there is a hint of dawn beyond the distant mountain range, its ragged peaks still bearing the remnants of last winter’s snow. The ring of fire from the previous night is now smoldering ash. The pack of coyote, their eyes flashing golden, their teeth white against the night, are gone. The shades of gray gradually become green.
The campfire burns high and curls around the stacked brushwood, and I inhale the scent of coffee brewing. I am tall, slender Hannah, young, brave and athletic, adventurous to the point of blind impulse. I am fearless and determined to do my job, even if it means arresting the man sitting across the campfire, his eyes focused on me in a way that sends shivers of delight up my spine. I realize that I have cast aside the pragmatism that has served me through hardship, and beyond logic I have fallen in love with this exasperating man. I am at a crossroads: do my duty as a detective or bring to an end the loneliness of a lifetime. What will I do?
I turn off the computer. The morning breeze is only the air conditioner. The campfire is the sun streaming through my window. As I rise from my chair I feel the sharp pains in my titanium-patched ankles and the misery in that old rotator cup injury. I see the dust bunnies under the desk, and I hear the unsolicited pitch for aluminum siding on my answer machine. But for those brief moments none of that existed. I wolf down a tuna sandwich for lunch, anxious to go back to that valley, where Hannah will make a decision that affects the rest of her life.
If I’m lucky, my readers will leave the mundane behind and become Hannah, too. They will lose themselves in another time and place.
Actually, luck has little to do with it. It’s work to grab readers and hold them for the duration of a book. To get them to abandon the waiting wash load, the weeds in the garden and that dress that needs hemming we must create someone they will care about, someone like themselves with problems to solve and personality traits that make solving them difficult. We must forget ourselves and become that person for however long it takes.
How do I know what Hannah will do? Because I know her as I know myself. I may have joined her at a crisis in her life, but before I knew what she’d do to solve it I stepped back in time to her birth. How many times have your heard a TV cop say, “Run a full background on …” Until you know how your character came to this crossroads you will decide how she handles it when it should be her decision. What was her childhood like: loving family, single parent, orphan, or absentee parent [physically or emotionally]? What of the major traumatic events in life occurred before the moment we join them?
Psychologists say that death, marriage, divorce, and moving are all life-defining moments. Childhood is a defining moment. Now they tell us that our personalities are forming even in the womb and that what we experience by age five pretty much completes the job. We then spend the rest of our lives refining, modifying those traits or using them as an excuse for our behavior.
Take a good look at the person you want to use as your main character. What made them who they are? And don’t forget to do the same for the advisory. That exasperating guy sitting across the campfire from Hannah has a past, too. As writers we create these characters. The moment they stop being characters and become people what they do is pretty much up to them. Sit back and enjoy the write!

Starting in June I will have room for a limited number of writers for critiques or on-line individualized lessons. Query through this sight.

HOW TO BEGIN A STORY: The Long and the Short of it


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I remember reading that at the beginning of World War II a White House employee was tasked with writing a memo. I have misplaced the actual words but it took a lot of verbal detours such as “It is important that in the interest of national security that employees who find themselves in their offices after dark that they take every precaution to see that the windows are secured with dark fabric that will obscure light from the sight of enemy aircraft …” FDR said, “Just tell them to cover the windows at night.”
We writers must find a happy balance between flavoring our stories and boring them with unnecessary details that do nothing to move the story forward. Readers come to us with plenty of baggage of their own. Most of us have had our hearts broken at least once, have been scared or near giddiness with anticipation. We have felt betrayed by a friend or ashamed of something we wish we could take back. We all grew up, learning life as we experienced the good and bad mingled amid the ordinary. Writers call on our own similar experiences to portray what our protagonists go through.
The readers call on their similar feelings to fill in the blanks, too. That way we don’t have to spend two pages to describe the anguish a protagonist feels at betrayal when a few well-chosen sentences will do.
In fiction, we often make our stories better by cutting from the top down. Every character has a back story. Their personalities, environment, past experiences make them react to current situations in their own unique way, and that creates the conflict and growing complications. It is a surface situation (others, self, nature) that may start the action, but it is the person formed by the back story reacting to the current situation that peaks our concerns enough to keep turning the pages.
Our back story may be a 15 year old girl is has been lucky enough to grow up in a two-parent family, middle class, parents working, no severe illnesses, no setbacks, just all plugging along as the average suburban family. Nobody in print gets off that lucky, so let’s let Darcy learn that her father is having an affair. She will of course feel her world shattered around her.
Let’s write a one sentence scenario to keep us focused: Fifteen-year-old Darcy discovers that her father is having an affair with the office secretary and sets about to straighten out the family before it is destroyed. You have a lot of leeway here. Does her back story tell you that she’d tell her mother immediately, tell her father that she knows and threaten to tell her mother, threaten the secretary, or pretend it isn’t happening? It is your job as the writer to create a backstory that will give her the tools to react in the way you want. But after that first action, be prepared to let Darcy take the lead. Your job is done. Every complication and solution from here on is hers to face and solve or give up.
Let’s say that your first draft begins this way:
Darcy stretched across the nubby chenille bedspread with her trig textbook opened. Her foot tapped restlessly as she wrestled with the last problem. Done! She groaned as her mom’s voice floated up from the kitchen. It had that “do me a favor” tone—bad news dipped in honey.
“Sweetie, please take Dad’s suit the cleaners, and tell them to make it a rush. I forgot to leave it off this morning on the way to work. Make sure he didn’t leave his cellphone in the pocket; he’s getting so forgetful these days.”
Darcy snatched Dad’s suit slung at the bottom of the stairs and slammed the door behind her. Dad’s forgetful? How about Mom? Rats. By the time she gets back, it’ll be too late to go to Julia’s. Striding toward her bike in the side yard, she jammed her hand into one pocket after another. She pulled a folded paper from the right back pocket.
It was a sales slip for a negligee size 8. Darcy could feel blood throbbing through her temples. Mom was a 12.

In 174 words we introduced the main character, indicated that it is a two-parent household, a two-story home, and that Dad leaves his personal errands to Mom, who also works. That could be important later on. There’s nothing really wrong with starting with the ordinary day as contrast to what is to come, but we may not always have the word allowance to do that.
We could omit the introduction that shows Darcy doing her homework. We could even omit Mom’s quote. There’ll be plenty of opportunities to let the reader know that it’s a week day, that it isn’t yet summer vacation.
In only 46 words in the next example we know there’s a family of three and that Dad is cheating, a surprise:
Darcy stared at the words on the sales slip from Bon Ton Jolie that she recovered from Dad’s suit pants: black negligee, size 8. She felt the blood throb through her temples. Mom wears a 12. She felt her safe little haven crumble at her feet.

In 46 words in the next we know the above and that Darcy isn’t going to just pretend it isn’t happening:
Darcy clamped her fist, crumpling the sales slip. How could Dad buy a negligee for another woman? Should she tell Mom? Everything she thought she knew vanished in a heartbeat. Her tears blurred her vision, but not her thoughts. She knew what she had to do.

Initial Action
In 25 words we are plunged into Darcy’s world with her already taking matters into her own hands:
Darcy brushed past the startled receptionist and burst into her dad’s office. She tossed the crumpled sales slip onto his desk. “How could you, Dad?”

However we chose to begin our stories if we do a thorough job with the back story of our characters they will almost write the story for us. Our clever readers bring their own experiences to help them empathize, even if the protagonist’s adventure is unfamiliar. The emotions will be. Good luck.