Show, Don’t Tell

Yesterday, September 3, 2009, was my anniversary, or would have been. I am never sure of the proper wording for such moments. Had Ellen lived we would have celebrated our ninth anniversary together, but I digress. The point I am striving to make is that I was thinking about Ellen, recalling one of the few good events I associate with this time of year, and remembered the first time I encountered the concept of Show, Don’t Tell.

Ellen and I hadn’t been married long—or perhaps it was before we married, I cannot recall for certain—when she read some of my epic fantasy, Gods Among Men. This was not the first time I had shared my writing with others, but it was the first time I received feedback that prompted a major restructuring of the story itself. The first time someone offered a criticism that forced me to adopt new techniques for writing my tale.

It is incredibly difficult to read your own work and spot your deepest problems. The knowledge of what was intended causes you to miss mistakes. I, like most writers, turn to others for insight into where I am going wrong.

Nowadays I have a writers group that regularly and routinely shreds my work. I am forever grateful for their blunt, sometimes even harsh, comments.

Before I had the writers group to turn to, however, there were many times when I begged, cajoled, guilted, and even bribed people to read over my work; then eagerly, anxiously, and with great trepidation waited for their opinion. Usually their probing analysis consisted of a shrug followed by, “It’s nice.”

Let me say, on behalf of all writers everywhere, It’s nice does not constitute useful feedback.

After such a tepid response, I always asked follow up questions. Those I so pestered often misinterpreted my queries as a request for my ego to be stroked, and so they continued to give polite praise that boiled down to a longer version of, “It’s nice.”

With sufficient prompting, a few admitted to not liking or understanding some element, portion of a scene, or character. My first reaction to a negative comment was to explain what I was trying to do, hoping my critic would offer a suggestion on how I might better achieve my intended goal. Inevitably this caused people to believe, perhaps with some justification, that I was defending what they disliked. Rather than run the risk of offending me and perhaps starting an argument, most people at this point looked for ways to change the subject. Realizing the futility of trying to continue, I would acquiesce.

Ellen, however, read what I had written and offered feedback that went beyond the norm. She realized I wasn’t looking for my ego to be stroked or attempting to defend turgid prose. She was not a great editor, but she was a voracious reader and had won at least one national award for something she wrote as a teenager. After reading my then second chapter, she struggled to find a way to explain what she didn’t like. After several different attempts, she said, “You’re telling me a story rather than showing me what is happening.”

I would like to claim that a light-bulb went on over my head at those words; if so it was a single, short-circuiting LED. My initial confused reaction was, “Isn’t telling a story what fiction writing is all about?” After further discussion, I realized she objected to three places where characters described something that had happened to them earlier. Insight kicked in and I asked, “You think it would be better if I rewrote those parts as flashbacks from their point of view?”

Ellen thought this was a great idea, and after considerable angst on my part I agreed. My reservations stemmed from the fact that these changes required throwing out a hundred pages of existing material and starting over from scratch. I am not a fast writer, which made the scope of the task all the more daunting. Plus, the proposed alterations would only work if I also took a hatchet to the intricate outline for my first book, an outline that took years of painstaking effort to create. Still, what is the point of good feedback if you don’t act on it?

And so, with gritted teeth, I snapped my existing structure apart and rewrote a major portion of Gods Among Men. Chapter two became chapters two, three, and four, each of which included an extended flashback sequence focusing upon a major event that sets in motion all that follows. The difficult changes were not as hard as I first feared, nor even the most challenging ones I have had to make. (The award for Editing Challenges that Most Resemble the Bataan Death March still goes to the plethora of changes I made to chapter three in the last year.)

The resulting chapters where significantly better than what had existed before, and by introducing flashbacks into my story I added a tool to my repertoire that resolved problems in other parts of the story.

Since that time, from countess authors, I have heard the line, “Show, don’t tell.” It is almost always the right choice for how to write a scene, but I still find it a struggle to follow this advice. It is easy to let telling slip into a sentence, paragraph, or scene. Sometimes it is hard to discover the phrase, sentence, or description that shows what is intended. Writing something like, he said angrily is easy. Describing the look on a character’s face, the sound of their voice, and their gestures so that the description conveys anger without explicitly using the word anger or any of its synonyms is quite challenging.

Ellen’s feedback showed me a way to become a better writer, and that was much more valuable than others telling me, “It’s nice.” I wish she was still around so I could show her how much I appreciate all she did for me.

When Last We Met…

Yesterday the Magic City Writers met and reviewed the first draft of the second chapter of Kathryn’s werewolf story, Moonlit. It was, as usual, a good meeting, punctuated by lively discussions about the content and details of Kathryn’s story, followed by a series of writing exercises and a tasty dinner.

To summarize, it was agreed that Kathryn had a good initial version of her second chapter.

My personal opinion about what you want out of the first draft of a chapter is that it should:

  1. Sketch out the major actions in the scene.
  2. Establish, continue, or expand the tone and style of the story.
  3. Progress the plot.
  4. Identify principle characters in the scene and their motivations.
  5. Lay the foundation for what will happen in later chapters.
  6. Avoid significant structural problems.

Kathryn’s first draft accomplishes all of this. The key phrase here is “first draft”. The journey between first draft and final draft is a long one, as I well know. Clutter must be removed, dialogue and descriptions must be added or sharpened, phrases reworded, and so on. It is a lot of work, often it is remarkably difficult, but having a decent first draft does make the process a little easier.

Nicole submitted her latest draft of her first chapter. I have helped her work on that, so I have a better idea than the others in the group about what to expect. To avoid inserting my bias into the mix, I will refrain from further comments about her chapter at this time.

The writing exercises we did were quite fun. We took turns coming up with starting phrases or sentence that we would all write on for about six minutes, then read aloud. The goal is to write quickly, without dithering over details; to let your imagination run free and put your thoughts on paper as fast as possible. I think we all enjoyed the exercises and noticed interesting trends in each other’s style. I will not comment upon the others, but for myself it did become clear that, compared to everyone else, I write slower and focus upon rich descriptions with dark themes. (Did I mention I am a fan of classical Gothic horror?)

Nicole served french bread, creamy cheese, a yummy vegetable beef stew, and ice-cream with nuts and chocolate sauce. Thank you Nicole for a great meal.

That pretty much covers the meeting. We are currently scheduled to meet in three weeks on September 7th. Its possible we may have a new person show up for that meeting. Lindy is inviting a friend of hers who has been published.

Party on everyone.

Chaper 4: The Lost Edits

Yesterday I was editing my my epic fantasy, Gods Among Men. I fought my way to the end of chapter four, …And Strikes Down The Inner Circle. Finally, after weeks (months?) of writing and rewriting, I finished addressing the editing suggestions I had previously received from the writers group.

Feeling pretty good, I scrolled back through the chapter, lightly skimming over the text one last time before moving on to the editing suggestion for chapter one.

That was when I saw it. A big blank space towards the end of the middle section of the chapter. What the heck? I thought. (OK, I admit it, I did not think the word heck, but I am trying to keep this post G-rated, so cut me some slack.)

On any given day, I almost never finish my editing or writing at a the end of a chapter or a major section. Since it might be days (or longer) before I return, I insert multiple blank lines near where I stop for the evening. This makes it fairly easy to scroll back to where I was and continue on from there. Sometimes I write notes to remind me what I was thinking about.

Pulling out my editing notes, I looked at the surrounding text to see what I had done there. Above the blank space everything was fine, but starting just below the gap were suggestions and comments that I had not addressed. How it had happened I cannot guess, but it was clear that I had stopped editing there and forgot to come back and finish making changes.

“Curses,” I cried. (OK, I admit I didn’t actually do that, but I’m a writer and we’re allowed some dramatic license now and again.) There were more changes required than I could make last night, but I should be able to knock them out this evening.

The moral of this story? Structure saves you. If I had not adapted the habit of making my stopping points blindingly obvious I would never have noticed that I skipped something. I would have left problems in the text unaddressed. Not the end of the world, but in writing it is the details that matter.

A single poor word choice can make a sentence awkward. An awkward sentence can detract from the content of a paragraph, which in turn disrupts a scene and throws the reader out of the story. This will happen from time to time even with the best of writers, but when it happens often the reader puts down the book and never returns. Problems when found must be addressed or the work as a whole suffers.

When Last We Met…

Yesterday we had another rollicking meeting of the Magic City Writers Group. I had submitted my first chapter, The Wizard’s Spells…, again for what I hoped would be a final editing pass. I had mentioned before that I had asked the group if they thought it needed another pass, and I summarized their response then as:

The consensus was that while chapter one was much improved it still required one more editing effort by the group. But just one more. A final review to clean up the flotsam and jetsam still floating around in the text. We didn’t discuss the details of what was wrong, just that it still has issues. I want to avoid infinitely editing this chapter, but I cannot ignore warnings from the group. I shall resubmit chapter one when my turn rolls around again.

I had believed when the meeting began that the session would be short, a couple of hours at most. After all, this was the third time we had gone over this chapter. How much more was left to be said?

Four-and-a-half hours later I staggered away from the table bloody, bruised, and beaten; a broken man, a shell of my former self. I exaggerate, but the point remains that the session was longer and more grueling than I had been prepared for.

I expected people to point out awkward sentences, poor word choices, and other syntactic fluff. By “syntactic fluff” I do not mean these problems are not important to address, merely that they are correctable by a better choice of single words or altering a sentence or two. I.e. The solution is relatively easy to discover and can be quickly implemented.

In addition to points about syntactic fluff, however, there were also protracted debates about some of the underlying structure. Problems that cannot be solved by changing a word or sentence or even a paragraph, but could require another rewrite of whole scenes. Worse yet, embedded in the areas that have structural issues are elements I either really want to retain, or feel must be there for reasons not obvious to the reader at this moment. Elements that setup important plot points.

This leaves me with a quandary. Do I make major changes that make it hard to keep the elements I feel are important? Or do I ignore the group’s warnings about the problem areas? Is there an acceptable alternative that lets me address their concerns while keeping intact what I want/need for later?

I wrote before about avoiding the infinite edit, in which I talked about this particular chapter. As I said then:

It is possible to edit a chapter over and over and never “finish” it. I could reword sentences and rewrite the same scene over and over. Infinitely editing the same chapter, never moving on to the bigger story. At some point you have to draw a hard line and say, “Yes it could be better, but it is good enough as it is right now.”

With regards to this chapter, I feel I am close to that hard line where you just fix the most glaring or easily solvable problems and ignore the rest.

I will think on this some more, review the notes from the meeting and listen to the audio recording I made. I will reread the problem areas with a harsh, unbiased eye. I hope to find away to address the bigger problems that does not require a major overhaul. Failing that I may settle for simply reducing the problems so they don’t intrude into the story to the same extent they do now. That may be the best solution I can manage.

Reading My Own Work With Fresh Eyes

Over a year ago I started getting serious feedback about my writing. By this I mean I found other aspiring writers and we formed a group where we gave substantive, constructive, critical reviews of each other’s work. Since then, much of my writing time has focused upon addressing the editing suggestions from the group.

Recently, I declared war upon certain words and sought to eliminate them, as much as possible, from my writing. I began with the chapters I had already edited based upon the group’s feedback. This process improved chapters whose major issues I had already addressed.

In the last few days I expanded the war to chapters I wrote a long time ago and have yet to submit to the group for review. In particular, I had the opportunity to reread certain sections I felt proud of when I first wrote them. Sections I edited several times before the founding of the writers group, but have not looked at recently.

I discovered how serious feedback has helped me grow as a writer. The prose I once felt proud of I now see as amateur dreck. If I dared submit these chapters to the group they would savage them, with cause.

This isn’t a case of a writer being harsh upon himself. Over the last year the group has helped me see a variety of problems with my writing. Problems such as the overuse of the passive voice, reliance upon adverbs and adjectives rather than dialogue and actions to describe character’s emotions, run-on sentences, rambling paragraphs, info dumps, and so on.

I saw all of these problems and more in the my older, non-group edited works. It will take months, at least, to correct all the problems I found in a cursory review.

At first I shook my head and felt depressed at the magnitude of the task required to clean up these chapters. Then I started to feel better, pretty darn good actually. Why? Because I could see the problems now, whereas a year ago I couldn’t. I would never write chapters with those problems now. Or at least, the problems would not exist to the same degree.

I have improved as a writer. I can now correct many of the issues with my writing myself. I still need the group to edit what I consider a final version, because there will still be problems I will not see. But because of their help I can find and fix many problems myself.

There are gifts you receive that you cannot repay. I count helping me become a better writer as such a gift. They only way I can repay it is to do my best to help the others improve their own works.