Sunday, July 25, 2010

When Last We Met…

On Sunday, July 25, 2010, the Magic City Writers met and reviewed the beginning of Lindy’s novel, The Night Things.    

The meeting was small; just Kathryn, Lindy, and Myself.  Nicole was unable to attend, as was our hoped for new member Emily.   

Before describing what happened, let’s talk about  the food.

Let’s Torture Alex by Mentioning What We Ate

As snacks we served three types of cookies: peanut butter, chocolate chip, and oatmeal raisin.   In a word, yum.

For dinner Kathryn made a very good Cobb Salad, using the official recipe from the The Hollywood Brown Derby, home of the original Cobb Salad.  She even hand made the salad dressing that is supposed to be used on it.  It required a bit of tweaking (chicory was impossible to find, and blue cheese was substituted for Roquefort ) but the result was delicious.  Great job, Kathryn.

Just for the records, the salad consists of water crest and romaine lettuce, tomato, bacon, chicken, hard boiled eggs, avocado, blue cheese, chopped chives, and tuna.  

The dressing’s ingredients do not live up to their combined taste, so I shall not bother listing them.

Later we were suppose to have either watermelon or ice cream for desert.  I regret to say that we were so sated from dinner we forgot to have desert.

Oh woe is me.   Now we shall have to eat these items later in the week. 

An Now What We Did

Lindy knew that her submission was a rough, first draft.  She asked we only give her general comments.   i.e. Focus on structure and plot problems, not so much on details or grammar.

I think my idea of general comments was a lot closer to her concept of line-by-line edits.   For that, I apologize to her.

The consensus was that The Night Things contains many strong elements, and that Lindy needs to flesh out or rewrite certain portions.   Some parts were quite good, and other parts needed more work. 

After reducing Lindy to a shadow of her former self, we did writing exercises based on an idea of Kathryn’s.  Her idea was to practice our ability to describe items based only on how they feel. 

One at at time, we each put odd shaped objects into a box and closed the lid so the others could not see what it was.  We each reach into the box and felt the items, never looking at them.  Afterwards we wrote a few sentences describing what we felt.   

This was a great idea.  It required flexing unusual writing muscles and focusing on subtle details.  This was a very useful exercise for me, and I think for the others as well.  Another great job, Kathryn.

The Remains of The Day

After dinner, we retired upstairs and watched a Mystery Science Theater 3000 riff on a movie called Jack Frost.  This movie hammered and glued a number of Russian folklore stories together into one of the dumbest movies in history.  Basically it was a deranged mixture of Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, and Sleeping Beauty with liberal doses of the Baba Yaga myths.   Needless to say, at times we laughed till we cried.

Afterwards I retired to write this post, while the others went their separate ways..

Coming Attractions

We set the date for the next meeting to be Wednesday August 11 at 6:00 pm.  This time, we shall eat dinner first, then rip to shreds my fifth chapter, Through Persuasion and Force,….   

I am especially looking forward this, because I just finished a complete (and much needed) rewrite of this chapter.  At the moment I am feeling quite proud of myself and need to be taken down a notch.   I feel certain the others shall oblige me.

Until my next post, take care and have fun.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

A New Posting on the Website For My Story

I have posted a new copy of Chapter one, The Wizard’s Spells…, on the website dedicated to my story, Gods Among Men.  

There is also a new blog post on the book’s website entitled (appropriately) Another New Version Of Chapter One

The  blog post talks about the reasons for the latest edit of chapter one and the vital contribution from Alex, a founding member of the Magic City Writers’ Group.  (AKA, the person I keep torturing by talking about the meals we server at our much-too-infrequent meetings.) 

I will not repeat myself here, except to express my deep gratitude for the invaluable help she is giving me with editing my story.  Thank you Alex, your efforts are much appreciated.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Show And Tell

I have been quiet of late, which is not to say I haven’t been working.  For several months I found it quite difficult to focus on writing.  My time and my thoughts were co-opted by pressures from work, preparations for my and Kathryn’s wedding, developing an exercise regime so that my back problems from last year do not recur, and so forth. 

This is not to say I did nothing with regards to working on my story.   The process of writing and editing requires both physical and mental effort. 

Physically I had too much to do and too little free time to do it in.  Mentally, I have been thinking and internalizing realizations I had months ago.  Preparing for the time when the wave of demands on my time would recede and my labors could resume.

In recent weeks I returned to writing, and established a schedule I hope is self-sustaining.  

Recently I tested an insight I had into the writer’s adage, “show, don’t tell”.  I am pleased with the results.  Before explaining my insight, and the results, let me establish the fundamentals of both “show” and “tell”.

The Ease of “Telling” a Story

It is (relatively) easy to “tell” a story, to lay out in simple words what you want the reader to think or feel.   The problem is that the readers don’t actually feel those emotions, they just know they should.  Using “tells” gives your writing the emotional content of a computer algorithm.

When you write the words “John felt angry” or “Jane smiled in happiness”, the words “felt angry” and “in happiness” are “tells”.  

Almost anytime you use a word that directly represents an emotion or motivation the sentence or phrase is a “tell”.  It is at those times that you are explicitly telling the reader the emotions and motivations of characters.   By extension, you are telling the reader how they should react to those emotional states.

You aren’t engaging the imagination, you are dictating a reaction. 

You aren’t describing actions, you are informing the reader how they should interpret the scene. 

For that matter, you haven’t created a scene, just established a character’s current state.   It is a point with no direction or momentum.

The Difficulty of “Showing” a Story

To “show” a story requires  painting with words.  To create an image that clearly conveys context and emotion without stating either directly.

Instead of “John felt angry”, consider “John’s face turned red.  He clenched his fist and snorted like a bull.”

Instead of “Jane smiled in happiness”, consider “Jane tapped her feet in time with the pop song playing on the radio.  She looked out the window, saw red roses reaching for the sun, and smiled.”

Neither sentence above is great, but they do illustrate the key points about “showing” a story. 

It takes more words, more sentences, to “show” a scene rather than”tell” it.  

“Showing” requires a focus on actions, on details, to create an scene the reader can imagine.  From the imagination comes understanding of the character, and perhaps empathy.  From understanding and empathy comes engrossment, the desire to keep reading.

My Insight

“Showing” a story or scene  is always more powerful, more engrossing, than “telling”.  “Showing” a story is the preferred approach, hence the adage of “show, don’t tell”. 

But “showing” requires much more work and many more words.   It takes more time to write, to find the right way to describe a scene.  In some cases, it is difficult to find the right words to “show” something that you can “tell” in a few words.  

“Showing” can slow a scene down, make it drag when you want it to move faster.  Plus, when you “show” everything important details can become lost in a sea of words and images.

Ergo there must be a balance between the two.   A time to show, and a time to tell.  A time to dwell on details, and a time use a “tell” as a shortcut between more important moments.  Instead of “show, don’t tell”  the correct approach is “show and tell, each in their proper proportion and where they are most effective”.

What this Approach Led Me to Discover

With practice I have become more comfortable with “showing” and less reliant on “telling”.   I combined this with my earlier revelation about how I should sharpen the focus of my story. 

The result was much better characterizations, and a stronger pacing. 

I now write transitions between scenes as brief “tells”.  Summaries that cover only the essential facts needed.    A successful “tell” is one that is short, infrequent, and serves to either start a scene or transition to a new scene. 

“Tells”should underscore something that is being shown, or remind the reader of important information they were shown before.  “Tells” that fail these tests I  either delete or try to convert to “shows”.

Scenes of importance became “shows”.  Descriptions of actions and expressions that force me to reveal the characters  in ways that make them more real.  If it is worth spending more than a few words on a moment then it should be a “show”.  A visual play in which actions flow from the character’s nature combined with their situation.

I don’t claim that there are hard and fast rules for when to use a “show” versus a “tell” or that I have found a perfect mix between them.  But the insight I had  has demonstrably improved my fiction writing.   It takes longer to write each scene, and the words do not come as fast.  Nevertheless, I recommend experimenting with this approach yourself.    I think you will be pleased with the results.