Make the Telling Interesting

We’ve all heard we need to “show not tell.” And we’ve all listened to both sides of the debate — maybe even taken a side. I’m here to say it’s not a choice. You need both. What is debatable is how you do it.

First, let’s review what we mean by “show” and what we mean by “tell.”

Show

“Show” is scene. Those are the places in the book where characters do things. They talk to each other. Something is usually happening, even if it’s something subtle.

For example:

“Shawna stood languidly at the bus stop, her slack body betraying the exhaustion she felt. She struggled to keep her eyes open and so kept them moving up and down the street, watching for the bus, then counting taxis as they passed going in the other direction. ‘Why couldn’t he have sprung for a cab?’ she asked no one in particular.

“‘Men. They can be such cheap wazoos, can’t they?’

“The voice startled Shawna. She’d thought she was alone, but at some point another woman had joined her at the stop. ‘I’m sorry,’ Shawna said. ‘What did you say?'”

You can visualize what’s happening: the figure of a woman fighting to stay away, frustrated to be waiting for a bus when she could have been in a cab. We can hear the woman who’s quietly joined Shawna at the stop.

Tell

As I type these subtitles, I can’t help remembering the “Show and Tell” days in elementary school. You showed the class something and told everyone about them. Remember the kid who just showed something, too shy to utter a word about what he or she was holding up (usually in front of the face)? Remember how puzzling that was?

I’m not for a minute saying that you should explain what you’re showing in your novel. Instead, think of each as a necessary half to the whole.

Elizabeth Lyon explains this about the best I’ve seen it done in her book, Writing Subtext: How to craft subtext that develops character, boosts suspense, and reinforces theme. In her “Quick Review of Craft” section, she briefly reminds readers of what we mean by characters, plot, story, theme, and narration. About this last one she writes, “[i]Narration[/i], simply put, includes all forms of ‘telling,’ not to be confused with the word ‘narrative,’ which means ‘the story’. Narration is a whopper category that includes information, description of characters and setting, flashback summaries, thought, and the ‘sad, mad, glad’ emotions as well as the ‘fight, flight, excite’ reactions. You may have heard the writer’s mantra ‘show don’t tell’. Show means plot action and tell means narration. All together, you have produced the narrative of your story, told by narrators — the protagonist, other viewpoint characters, and sometimes the author. When used well, narration adds depth, but when overused, telling tempts the reader to skip portions of your book.”

What she doesn’t say (at least not here) is that when the author is the narrator, that third person narration should still have a voice. It might be pretty straightforward reportage or it could be a voice with unique characteristics, a voice that conveys mood and creates atmosphere. It’s not an active character within the book, but it’s an active element in giving the book its personality, of providing a sense of cohesiveness.

Take a look at these three examples:

Toni Morrison’s opening to Sula:

“In that place, where they tore the nightshade and blackberry patches from their roots to make room for the Medallion City Golf Course, there was once a neighborhood. It stood in the hills above the valley town of Medallion and spread all the way to the river. It is called the suburbs now, but when black people lived there it was called the Bottom….”

Tom Robbins’ opening paragraph to Another Roadside Attraction:

“The magician’s underwear has just been found in a cardboard suitcase floating in a stagnant pond on the outskirts of Miami. However significant that discovery may be — and there is the possibility that it could alter the destiny of each and every one of us — it is not the incident with which to begin this report.”

Stephen King’s opening for The Shining:

“Jack Torrance thought: Officious little prick.

“Ullman stood five-five, and when he moved, it was with the prissy speed that seems to be the exclusive domain of all small plump men. The part in his hair was exact, and his dark suit was sober but comforting….”

How can you not be drawn in? These are not scenes. These paragraphs are not “showing” us something. They are narration. They are “telling” us something. Yet each is interesting and compelling. Each captures our interest and urges us to keep reading.

 

Show and Tell

So you see, it’s not a matter of whether you should show OR tell. It’s a matter of how you will do both: how you will balance the scenes and the narration, the drama and the description.

Combine compelling narration with sense-filled scenes, and you’ll create the illusion necessary for lulling your reader out of their chair and into the world you have created on the page.

Writers Roundup

What can I say about all of these recent posts rounding up articles and blog posts for you? Not much except I’m trying to make up for the times when I can’t offer up much…. Enjoy these while you can!

 

Inspiration

Who can’t be inspired by the late Maya Angelou?!? Maria Popova at Brain Pickings gives us a beautiful homage to the beloved and respected poet in “Maya Angelou on Identity and the Meaning of Life.”

Writing

You’re at the keyboard, the scene is unfolding, the narrative soaring, the story moving…. You’ve gotten to a point where a break seems right. But should you just use spaces? Create a new chapter? Do something else entirely? How do you decide something like that, anyway? I’m so glad I found Ava Jae’s Writability post on this topic so I didn’t have to puzzle through it on my own.

Self-Publishing

You’ve heard the horror stories about writers who’ve been ripped off by unscrupulous “publishers” who promise the moon and deliver a burnt-out light bulb. Judith Briles at AuthorU offers up some excellent tips for avoiding that frustration in “Self-Publishing… Publishing Predators Put You and Your Book at Risk.”

Brooke Warner at She Writes defends what they do and draws a clear picture of what separates her service from some of the outfits that Judith Briles (previous item, above) warns us about. If you’re looking for more depth on the distinctions that exist out there — and there are many layers to self-publishing options, including legitimate co-operative arrangements — give “Not All Subsidy Presses are Created Equal” a look.

Marketing

Olivia Flores Alvarez reveals her “Top 5 Marketing Mistakes Indie Authors Make (And How to Do Better)” in this article from the Houston Press. Are you guilty of any?

eBook Singles

What’s Amazon up to with their Short Reads section? As of this writing, things are quiet, but Howard Polskin at Thin Reads has some ideas in “Amazon Creates Short Reads, New Section Devoted to E-Book Singles.” Could it be a new marketplace for you short works?

And here’s an oldie but a goodie, also about Amazon. If you’re wondering how many copies you have to sell to reach bestseller-dom in Amazon-land, take a gander at Gabe Habash’s article, which first appeared over a year ago at Publishers Weekly.

 

Stop Wasting Your Words

You’ve spent hours and hours fine-tuning a particular scene in your novel. It’s perfect. Except it doesn’t fit a new direction you’ve realized you need to take with the manuscript.

Or…

You’re three or twenty chapters into your newest novel, swimming along like a fish in the flow of your masterpiece when WHAM! You see the critical point in your novel more clearly than when you started. You’d bet your life on it being the logical, best thing to happen in your book — except it means going back to the beginning of your draft and overhauling huge chunks of what you’ve already written in order to make it work.

IKES!

Can you avoid it? Should you act like you never saw that perfect climactic scene so you can spare the riveting prose you’ve already penned? Do you really have to toss all that hard work into the trash?

Why does knowing other writers smash into this same abutment all the time not make it any easier? Surely some other writer with more experience has some secret to avoiding this…. There must be another way to deal prevent massive revisions. Outlining? Plotting in more detail? Longer, more precise character profiles before writing a word in the draft?

What’s Really Going On

You’re worried about wasting your time. You want to make the writing process more efficient. You want a tidy path from writing the first word all the way through typing “The End.”

How do you do that? Unfortunately, you can’t.

When we find ourselves chopping chunks (big or small) from our drafts, it’s easy to feel frustrated. Don’t. Resist trying to figure out ways to avoid this — you’ll spend more energy trying to find another way to bend the process to our liking than the energy you’ll expend just re-doing whatever needs to be done.

You can’t plan for every possible variation of your plot. You can plot very carefully, if that’s in your nature. But if you’re a “pantser” — drafting by the seat of your pants, letting the characters drive the plot from the get-go — then you have no choice but to accept that you’ll have to dump stuff.

Instead of focusing on getting the MSS finished as quickly as possible, immerse yourself in the process of drafting.

Think of the draft as an exploration into the characters and their situation. The draft is you chance to follow your instinct, or adhere to your outline — whichever.

You can’t screw up a draft. You have to tell yourself that over and over. Your draft is just that — a draft. It is not your final manuscript. It is in no way your final book. It is your playhouse. Your sandbox.

When you set yourself free to wallow in the draft, you’ll discover that nothing is wasted, even if you have to toss huge sections of the manuscript.

You might be hitting “Delete” a lot, but you have not wasted your time. You have not wasted the words. Quite the opposite: you have gained much more than you dumped.

You gained more writing experience, having written those words, those scenes, those passages of narration. You’ve gained a clearer insight into your project, and have a better idea of what the book is and will be when you’re done. You have grown as a writer through those pages.

It’s sort of like growing out of some of the clothes we had when we were kids. You might have absolutely loved that shirt and hated that you couldn’t wear it anymore — but before you knew it, you had a new favorite, then another. You probably couldn’t even tell us about that first favorite shirt today, could you? Or if you can, is it a shirt you’d want to wear again today? Probably not. You’ve outgrown it. Styles have changed. It’s old. Ragged. You have new shirts to wear instead.

So it goes with words and scenes and big chunks of that novel you have to chop. You’ll have new favorites scenes and narrative passages and you’ll chop those, too.

But as you grow as a writer, you’ll discover you’re dumping fewer and fewer sections — just as you save more favorite shirts, now that you’re older and aren’t growing as much.

Make no mistake: you’ll always have some extra stuff to shed, shirts that go to Goodwill because they aren’t in style any more or you’ve found you just don’t wear them any more. You’ll always have bits and pieces — sometimes big chunks — of your writing you’ll have to abandon, too.

Don’t fight it. Accept that it happens and move on. Tell yourself you needed to go down that path. It wasn’t the wrong path; it was your path. It was the necessary path to get where you are now.

And that’s the important thing.

What about you? How do you cope with chopping chunks of your writing?

Finding Your Voice

Awhile back a flurry of blog posts seemed to pop up on the topic of “voice.” The one that particularly caught my eye was by Margot Kinberg over at her Confessions of a Mystery Novelist. Titled “So Just Let Be Myself” (I’m thinking she meant to call it “So Just Let Me Be Myself”), she encourages writers to find their authorial voice.

A lot to be said for that, and her examples are wonderful.

Her idea of voice and mine differ, and after much thought, I’ve decided to add another voice to the topic of voice — my own.

When Margot Kinberg writes about voice, she refers to the author’s “natural” voice, a written voice that becomes as comfortable to you as your natural speaking voice. “Readers can tell when authors are using their own natural voices; the work reads more authentically and the story flows more smoothly.”

She cites several examples — from Agatha Christie to Carl Hiassen, two of my personal favorites. Hiassen’s voice, in particular, enables him to deliver narrative sections (as opposed to scenes with dialogue) in such an engaging way you’re through explanations of Florida backwater customs (for example) before you realize you’ve just experienced a section of necessary “telling” rather than being “shown” something.

So I agree with Ms. Kinberg that a book’s “voice” can be a natural extension of the author’s voice.

But a novel’s “voice” can also be a character. No, not an active character in the book. And I don’t mean a first person point of view character with a distinctive voice.

I’m talking about a removed, third person narrator that is not the author.

Let’s say you want to write a novel about an eighteenth-century woman, way before her time, who decides to captain her own pirate ship on the open ocean. But to add credibility to your tale, let’s also say that you decide to write the novel in style of early novels — using flowing descriptions, interruptions directed straight to “dear reader,” and other characteristics typical of novels back then.

Would you try to tell that story in your “natural” voice?

Probably not. You’d have to affect the “voice” of a narrator from a time long ago, using phrases and conventions that respect the era. In this case, you’ve created, in effect, a “character” voice — a narrative voice that isn’t your own, but has a personality nonetheless.

Perhaps you disagree with me, Dear Reader, about my ideas of narrative voice and the various personalities it can adopt. What say you?

 

Read “Pea Body” on Your iPad!

My newest novel, Pea Body, featuring amateur sleuths — and full-time RVers — Walt and Betty Rollin, is now available via iTunes!

You can purchase this e-version directly from the iTunes store via this link: https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/pea-body/id854711250?mt=11

Or you can select the print version via Lulu from my author spotlight page here: http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/ellenbooks

As always, thanks for your support and encouragement!

[Now... excuse me while I get back to writing the next Walt and Betty Rollin RV Mystery :) ]

Now on Kobo

I’m pleased to announce Pea Body is now available on Kobo. You can link to it directly here (or copy and paste this link into your browser’s address bar: http://store.kobobooks.com/en-US/ebook/pea-body ).

At just $2.99 with an immediate ePub download, this is just another way to plunge yourself headfirst into the first Rollin RV Mystery with Walt and Betty.

Waiting for the Kindle or Nook version? Coming soon…..

Writers Round-Up

May flowers? How about blossoms of links for writers? We’ll let you be the judge, but you should find at least one helpful resource in this group.

Have a link to share? Please do! Just send it to me via email or — better yet — in the comment section.

Reading

All writers should be avid readers. We should revel in all things books and paper and pens and ink. To that end, you might indulge yourself in some home decor around that theme. Need ideas? Check out flavorwire’s “10 Snug and Stylish Ways to Cozy Up with a Good Book.” (And what makes me think you’re about to order that Penguin Books cushion case?!?)

For Beginners

This should probably be a “must read” for all newbies. Take a look at Ava Jae’s “A Note to New Writers” from the Writability blog, and take heart.

Writing

Percy Spurlark Parker has been publishing mysteries since 1972, so he has more experience than most of us put together when it comes to crafting a great story. Whether you write mysteries or not, you’ll benefit from reading “How I Do What I Do and Why.” You’ll never guess the first thing he does when he starts something new. (I didn’t, but I think I’ll try it!)

The American Book Review posted its list of the “100 Best First Lines from Novels.” See if you agree. See if any inspire you to read a book you hadn’t thought of before. See if you might use one or two as a writing prompt to get your own juices flowing! (Just don’t try to publish something starting with the same sentence….)

In “The Full Value of the Idea of Comparison,” the editor of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine summarizes a Lydia Davis profile in which she critiques a few comparisons she found in her reading. Can you see the error in “A paper bag stuffed with empty wine bottles”? (Me neither.) Read the commentary here to find out what we missed that Ms. Davis caught.

Diapers, Jewelry, and Books — A Look at Amazon

Self-publishing (without going through an agent or publishing house), selling directly to readers (without dealing with bookstore chain buyers), getting reader reviews (instead of hoping a paid reviewer will take notice of your books) are all proof of “disintermediation” — the elimination of gatekeepers traditionally stationed between writers and readers. Amazon’s role in this is undisputed. But has it gotten here with all the best intentions? And what about its lesser known and discussed effects (like its treatment of warehouse laborers, for example)? For a long but intriguing discussion of all things Amazon, curl up with George Packer’s “Cheap Words,” from The New Yorker.

And for more related to Amazon… “To Host or Not to Host,” is a thought-provoking article by Josie Leavitt, an independent bookstore owner debating about whether to host an author event by a local person who’d chosen CreateSpace as his publisher. If you publish through Amazon, you really need to read this before approaching a bookstore about hosting an event for you and your book.

Self-Publishing

DIY: How to Price a Self-Published E-Book” dates back a few months, but this article from Alex Palmer in Publishers Weekly is worth a look if you’re about to apply a dollar sign and number to your pride and joy (your book, not your child…).

Connecting to Your Readers

Jason Kong, writing for The Book Designer blog, gives us “7 Things Your Fiction Fans Want to Hear You Say.” There’s a lot on the Web about building a platform and networking with other writers and finding your readers. This one gets past all that and gives you very simple but important ways to nurture those relationships, once you’ve forged them.

Selling Your Books

Kathie Shoop has sold more than 100,000 copies of her self-published novels. Want to know how she did it? She gives up her secrets (if they were secrets in the first place) in this interview with John Yeoman at Writers’ Village.

What about tapping into Goodreads to connect with other readers and possibly sell more books? I’m just exploring Goodreads myself, and found “5 Things Every Author Needs to Do to Improve Discoverability on Goodreads” helpful.

Getting Sued

‘Fess up. You worry about it sometimes, don’t you? You’ve got a great character in mind but you wonder if you write her as you imagine her then old Aunt Selda just might sue the britches off you, right? Well, it happens to the best of them, in this case a French author is being sued by Scarlett Johansson for allegedly exploiting her fame for the author’s benefit because of the way the author used Johansson’s name and image. Read more about this in the Telegraph.