Saturday, November 26, 2011

scene and summary/ show and tell

BAD WRITING ADVICE #9--always show and never tell.
Shouldn't be listened to. Really, can't be listened to. Every novel has some showing and some telling. First, there's the summary that comes between scenes, the telling that gets characters from scene to scene and summarizes events that would be tedious for the reader to experience. Sometimes this might be moving from place to place or having a person get ready for school or work or any number of things that don't need to be shown. Then there is description. Then there is backstory. I'm sure there are others, but the point is clear. Things have to be told. Here's the important part: THE WRITER HAS TO SELECT WHAT SHOULD BE SUMMARIZED and TOLD and WHAT SHOULD BE SHOWN IN SCENES. Pick right and the novel will feel balanced and will move without feeling thin. Pick wrong and--well, not good.

But there is also showing and telling within scenes. Here you should mostly show because you're trying to make the reader experience what the characters are experiencing. However, there will be times where some kind of analysis or explanation will enhance a scene. So even within a scene, there will be moments where telling can be a good thing if it isn't overdone. Here's an example from Pamela Painter's book on writing WHAT IF? This is a scene from Hempel's story "In The Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried."

"I have to go home," I said when she woke up.

She thought I meant home to her house in the Canyon, and I had to say No, home, home. I twisted my hands in the time honored fashion of people in pain. I was supposed to offer something. The Best Friend. I could not even offer to come back.

I felt weak and small and failed.

Also exhilarated.

The bold is telling and it makes clear to the reader the conflicted feeling of the narrator. It's effective.

It's the balance of telling and showing that needs to be looked at closely in everything you write.

Or so I think today.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

bad writing advice

WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW: How many times has this been written and rewritten, told and retold? The problem with the advice is inexperienced writers will think it means they have to write about their childhoods and what they had for dinner last week or their husband’s or wife’s new job. A writer who only writes about his or her life not only will most likely not have much to write about (sorry but most lives just aren’t that interesting) but more importantly he or she will make all the wrong decisions. They’ll be trying to stick to the truth of what happened and they will not allow the story to be told the way it needs to be told to be interesting and vivid.

I was in a graduate workshop once, and there was a retired policeman in the class. He wrote a story about policemen. Everyone in that workshop said the story didn’t ring true. The policeman said, “But it’s a true story.” He was arguing that it must ring true because it was true. But it doesn’t matter if something “happened” to a reader. A reader needs to be convinced on the page. The cop author picked the wrong details and didn’t show what he needed to show because he was wed to what actually happened.

Of course writers use their past to show emotional truths. They use events sometimes or things that happened to them. They definitely use ways they have felt in certain situations to create vivid emotions in scenes. BUT few writers (always exceptions) stick to a literal retelling in their fiction. It’s too confining.

A better way to think about what you should write about is “don’t write about what you cannot know”. But here’s the thing: you can know most things with research, which is pretty much just an Internet connection away. So that opens up what you can write about. More importantly, you can imagine most things so that really opens up what you can write about. You need to open up to allow yourself to imagine an original story and fresh situations.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

revision: mad scientist...

I had three readers, my wife and my agent and an assistant at the agency where my agent is an agent, read the manuscript while I let it set. I lasted nine days before I went back to it. I would have liked to let it set longer, but I’m getting revisions back from my editor soon on my other novel, the one coming out next, and I wanted to try to get another draft of Mad Science done before I get those.

My agent is very excited by the manuscript, which makes me excited. She and the agency assistant had some suggestions for revision though and I’ve written these out and thought about them. I like to write them. It helps me see comments a little more clearly. My wife had pretty much the same reaction as agent and assistant but one of her concerns wasn’t brought up by the other two. What I’ll do is go through the manuscript with an awareness of potential problems suggested by the critiques and see what happens.

I have to stay true to the manuscript and my vision of it, of course, but every writer benefits from outside advice and criticism and so it’s important to try to figure out what problems may have made your readers feel something was off in a certain place or a certain way.

At any rate, I’m excited to get back to the manuscript and see how I feel about it. Also, for me, this is one of the best parts of writing. I’m reworking sentences to try to get the “lightening” and not the “lightening bug” effect. So much fun.

I’ve got through about fifty pages and though I am having a good time, I’m worried about the ending. The ending is where there are still problems and most of the questions of my readers came from the last thirty pages. There are things that aren’t clear. SO I could keep going and get there when I get there, maybe a week or two at most, but I decide to do something I do sometimes—I’m going to skip up there and drop into those last thirty pages and work on them.

This lets me focus on the problem area without having worked through the whole novel which makes me fresher toward it. And I know I’ll go back to p. 50 and work forward again after I’ve gone over these last 30 pages so I’ll get the continuity I need when I do that.

Sometimes it’s helpful to work on one section or one problem or character etc… when you revise rather than doing the more general revision.

Friday, November 4, 2011

To a Character's heart

You’ve probably heard this before but I’ll say it again:

The way to a character’s heart (and isn’t that where we, as writers, are trying to get?) is through the things he or she wants/needs/desires and the things he or she fears. The acts that the character does in order to get what he or she wants and to avoid what he or she fears create character. These acts in the main characters also often drive the story.

Kind of a big deal, really.

Thinking about this in early drafts might help you decide what happens next or how a scene should work. Thinking about this in later drafts might help you select what should stay and what should go.