Tag Archives: writing tips

When Readers See Behind the Curtain

behind-the-curtain

“Show, don’t tell” is such ubiquitous advice, repeated so often so often in conference halls, writing guidebooks and classrooms, that I’d imagine most creative writing teachers would save themselves a lot of time by owning the phrase emblazoned on a stamp (don’t bother Googling; I’ve already checked and no such object exists). There’s even a short story published in the New Yorker titled “Show Don’t Tell.” But here’s the thing: sometimes you have to tell. In Plot & Structure, James Scott Bell cautions not to take the advice too literally, writing that “Showing is essentially about making scenes vivid. If you try to do it constantly, the parts that are supposed to stand out won’t, and your readers will get exhausted.” I’d imagine the idea’s been around as long as we’ve been on Earth telling stories, though the phrasing is often attributed to Chekhov:

Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass

The idea is that one allows the reader to see, hear, taste, smell, feel and experience a scene in a more immersive way than getting hit with an info dump. That draws attention away from the fact that it’s a work of fiction and makes the story come to life, and there’s the key: telling is okay only insofar as it doesn’t break the illusion. I want to examine two authors telling and not showing in interesting ways. One writer pulls it off. For the other, I believe, the tactic backfires.

Telling as a Plot Device

Kim Stanley Robinson’s Antarctica may just be the best-researched novel ever written. Every page drips with details large and small, insider lingo and scientific accuracy (too much for some reviewers). Clearly he knows his subject matter. In fact, Robinson traveled to Antarctica as part of the NSF’s Artists and Writers Program, which, yes, is a real thing. In his story, shortly after landing at McMurdo research station in Antarcitca, one of his characters gets a call from his boss, who wants to know what it’s like down there. “Just tell me what you see, Wade,” he says. “You’re my eyes.” Wade responds:

Well, I’m walking by the Crary Lab now. It’s quite small, composed of three small buildings on a slope, with a passageway connecting them. There’s a street sign saying I’m on Beeker Street, but it’s not much of a street. There are a lot of pipelines right on the ground… Now I’m passing a building like a giant yellow cube, with a bunch of antennas on the roof. Must be the radio building. Now I’m passing a little chapel… Now I’m on a road going out to the docks. Right now the docks are empty, because the bay is iced over.

Oh, you clever writer person you! I bet there’s a little sticky note saying “show, don’t tell” on the corner of his laptop screen. He found a way to sneak an infodump into his story… but, come on. It’s still an infodump. For me, this passage exposed the wiring and gears behind the metaphorical curtain. The phone call is such an obviously convenient literary device that it draws attention to the fact that we’re reading a work of fiction and in doing so breaks the immersion, like seeing a cameraman’s reflection in a movie.

Telling to Advance the Plot

Raymond Chandler had a similar dilemma in his gritty noir novel Farewell, My Lovely, but he tackles it much more skillfully. His detective, Philip Marlowe, has just been jumped by assailants. He doesn’t see them coming. They smack him on the back of the head and he’s out. A little later, he regains consciousness. Here’s how chapter ten opens (edited lightly for space):

“Four minutes,” the voice said. “Five, possibly six. They must have moved quick and quiet. He didn’t even let out a yell.”

I opened my eyes and looked fuzzily at a cold star. I was lying on my back. I felt sick.

“Then one of them got into the car,” the voice said, “and waited for you to come back. The others hid again. They must have figured he would be afraid to come alone. Or something in his voice made them suspicious when they talked on the phone.”

I balanced myself woozily on the flat of my hands, listening.

“Yeah, that was about how it was,” the voice said.

It was my voice. I was talking to myself, coming out of it. I was trying to figure the thing out subconsciously.

“Shut up, you dimwit,” I said, and stopped talking to myself.

Now that is an inventive literary device. Both writers break the same rule for the same purpose, but Chandler finds a way to keep the immersion intact. He remains faithful to the spirit of “show, don’t tell.” Robinson’s clunky approach strikes me as nothing more than a plot device, whereas Chandler’s deft handling works to advance the story even during a lull in the action.

How Important Are Writing Guidebooks?

Find_your_voice._express_yourself._creative_writing.

Short answer: very important, but a danger comes with reading too many. Guidebooks are crucial if you have little in the way of formal training. They always help and never hurt. Case in point: a student in my business writing class sought me out after class one day. He wanted to be a fantasy writer. He wanted advice. I asked him if he’d taken any of our college’s creative writing classes. “Nope,” he said, smiling broadly. “I’m 100% self-taught.” Oh? I asked him what how-to books he’d read in the course of educating himself. He made a face. “Books?” he asked. “None. Should I?”

giphy-2

But I Learn From Experience!

As a professional writer, the perception that writing is something easy irks me to no end. I’m reminded of the sage wisdom of Harry Crews:

“Your chances of being a renowned brain surgeon are better than being a renowned novelist,” he says. His sip of water at the end if particularly savage. I admire Harry Crews (A Feast of Snakes goes down as one of the darkest and most downright bizarre novels I’ve read), but I disagree with him on one point. I do believe that anyone can be a writer. But it takes time and practice and you have to learn from qualified experts. Fortunately for would-be novelists, there are no shortage of guidebooks to help us along. Too many, perhaps. In his criminally under-appreciated The Craft of Writing, editor and author William Sloane makes the following observation:

Lord knows this is not the first book on writing and the writer. There appear to be thousands of them, even if you leave out the accounts by writers themselves of how they wrote and what they wrote… All told, the combined instruction and encouragement thus afforded the part-time or beginning writer is more than sufficient to subtract seriously from the time he ought to be devoting to more important reading.

And there’s the rub. Time spent reading volumes of how-to guides is time taken away from reading novels in the genre you wish to write. In any genre, really. You shouldn’t read your genre exclusively (at least according to Faulkner). That’s why I was thrilled to discover that Hallie Ephron’s Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel opens with a list of “Novels That Set the Standard.” She splits her list of novels into categories based on their strength: plot, dialogue, characters, setting, action, suspense and classics that define the genre. I found that list the most valuable part of her guidebook, by a mile (and the advice itself was really good!). So read guidebooks, but understand that studying novels is equally important in the short term and more important in the long term.

But Aren’t Rules Meant to be Broken?

Do you feel that way? Here’s an antidote: become a teacher. Teach a couple semesters of creative writing. Let me know how that goes. Do you still feel that aspiring writers should be free to break rules? Look, obviously there are no hard and fast rules in writing. In The Art of Fiction, John Gardner phrases the dilemma more eloquently than I can: “What the beginning writer ordinarily wants,” he writes, “is a set of rules on what to do and what not to do in writing fiction.” He concedes that there are some good general guidelines and warnings, but he warns against a search for anything absolute:

When one begins to be persuaded that certain things must never be done in fiction and certain other things must always be done, one has entered the first stage of aesthetic arthritis, the disease that ends up in pedantic rigidity and the atrophy of intuition… Trustworthy aesthetic universals do exist, but they exist at such a high level of abstraction so as to offer almost no guidance to the writer.

Sol Stein, in On Writing and How to Grow a Novel – both of which are excellent – is more pedantic than most. Stein recounts a conference he attended during which an aspiring writer put a question to a panel of experts regarding pace. Most of the panelists wiggled around the question with vague responses like “go by feel.” When they got to Stein, the first words out of his mouth were “Here’s how it’s done.” His advice is frank and specific. In some places I find it extremely helpful (such as his “Actors Studio” technique). In other places I find it frustrating. Which leads to my third point…

When Experts Disagree

Towards the end of How to Grow a Novel, Stein comments on the much-debated issue of manuscript length, and gives the reader an exact figure to shoot for: 75,000 words. “Longer than that is a hazard except for bestselling authors,” he writes. My debut novel was 93k in a first draft, then edited down to 87k when I began submitting. The version that got published was eventually cut to a final length of 84,000 words. I’ve learned firsthand how painful that process can be. So when I saw Stein suggest that even my hard-edited manuscript would be, in his eyes, nearly 10,000 words too long, my heart pulled one of these:

giphy-3

Then a couple weeks ago, I got my hands on one of the best how-to guides I’ve had the pleasure of reading: Writing the Breakout Novel by literary agent Donald Maass. He talks a lot about the importance of adding depth to characters and places in order to create fiction that feels more fleshed-out and alive. “In enhancing your work,” Maass writes, “you may notice it growing lengthier.” He continues:

Breakout novels are highly detailed and generally complex. Their authors do not stint if adding material will deepen the impact of their stories. Many breakout novels are long. Do not be afraid of that.

He throws in a few asterisks, warning that “length is not a virtue all by itself.” No doubt that’s true. I remember talking to a conference-goer at last summer’s Writers Digest Conference who proudly announced that he planned to pitch a 300,000 debut novel to agents the next day. I suggested he cut the book in thirds and pitch it as a trilogy and he lost it. Some of the most famous books of all time are long, he protested (quite angrily). Later, on Facebook, I saw him complain that none of the agents ever got back to him. Sol Stein sounds like he’s heard that line before: “I know, Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full is very long,” Stein writes. “So is his reputation.” Do you have a Nobel Prize? No? Then don’t pitch a 300,000 word book.

The Bottom Line

Experts will disagree, so listen, learn and take from them what you need. Writing a resume provides a good analogy. No hiring manager can tell you the right formula. My business writing students routinely expect me, as the professor, to have the correct answer, and their faces noticeably whiten when I tell them, at the outset, that I can’t deliver. That doesn’t mean (I hope) that they shouldn’t listen to me. I tell them to hear me out, then go to the career guidance office, then read the textbook, then poke around online. I warn that they will find conflicting information. That doesn’t mean that anything goes. Identify your strengths and take what you need from each source. Be as informed as possible. All that goes for writing a novel just as well.

How to be Taken Seriously as a Writer

I’ve been reading a ton of author blogs these past couple weeks, both established and emerging literary voices, the self-published and the unpublished, memoirists, poets and playwrights, short story authors with 25 years’ experience and creative writing students still in high school. Some of these bloggers offer advice to the aspiring masses; others reflect on the ever-evolving journey or a writerly life. A bit of this sort of thing too:

64978886

That’s okay! That’s me, most of the time. My goal with this research is too learn new things and to network, but mainly to try and get a sense of what kind of brand identity I’d like to bring to my own blog. A common theme I see repeated on many writers’ blogs is a desire to be taken seriously. We all want to be respected. And it’s easy, with all those rejection letters piling up against the backdrop of a crowded internet’s mad scramble for attention, to feel discredited in advance, like a dish returned to the kitchen before the diner so much as takes a bite.

1212

The underlying question here regards the nature of expertise. When do I get to call myself an expert? If I’m Stephen King, I can dole out advice off the top of my head and be taken seriously. I am not Stephen King. Writers are treated notoriously poorly, well, just about everywhere. So what can you do about it, at least until you are Stephen King? I’d argue two things can help tremendously:

  1. Back up what you’re saying by citing sources
  2. Provide examples from the work of successful authors

I’m currently reading through the wonderful guide Writing the Breakout Novel by longtime literary agent Donald Maass. Its first chapter, in which Maass debunks common myths about succeeding as a novelist, was particularly revelatory (spoiler alert: a promotion campaign is not what will make your book a success). Early on, Maass establishes his credibility:

The principles and techniques I describe I have learned from years of analyzing breakout fiction. My teachers have been our era’s greatest authors. Applying these techniques has yielded dynamic and profitable results for me and for my clients.

Okay, Mr. Maass, you have my undivided attention. He could ramble stray thoughts off the top of his head and I would accept his lessons as gospel. But he doesn’t. On almost every page, he cites examples and quotes established authors who have used these techniques. Flipping through the chapters you get the sense that, contrary to the book’s premise, it is NOT his business to dispense original advice. Rather, Maass carefully studies successful books and attempts to work backwards, drilling down what formula made the story work and then seeing how its component parts can be rearranged to suit a writer’s needs. Too often I see bloggers work in the opposite direction. “I’m not successful yet, but here’s what I do, and if you do it too, you’ll be successful.” Well, when you say it like that…

giphy-1

In a previous post, I wrote about Sol Stein’s “actor’s studio” method discussed in his great writing guide Stein on Writing. It’s a great technique to add instant drama to a scene. I linked to the (credible) source where I learned about it, then found an example of the technique used in the work of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Don DeLillo, then wrapped by showing how I attempted to integrate it into my own writing. Not to sound like the grumpy English teacher that I am, but I think that if we all cited sources a little more often, it might make headway towards establishing credibility. At least, of course, until we’re Stephen King.