The First Cut is…

..the shittest. 😀

I realised I hadn’t written anything for my Common Writing Advice series in a while so it seemed  – providential? Foruitous? summat of that nature  –  that I have been churning this phrase around in my head for a while…

shit

Now I don’t spend the time I used to on writing sites, but whenever I chance to pass one there is always someone quoting this. And it’s not necessarily on a thread titled ‘Why is my first draft so shit?’ It can manage to crop up anytime, anywhere..

Adverbs – well you know, the first draft of anything is utterly shit and totally full of adverbs…

Love triangles …. I wouldn’t worry, the first draft of anything is shit and you can always turn the other guy into her pet tortoise later.

And it’s FUCKING BRILLIANT ADVICE.

Yes, I was yelling, I apologise. It’s still fucking brilliant advice though.

Essentially said by every writer ever, it boils down to, just write.

It almost feels like its not writing advice at all, more a matter of reaching in to the ether and pulling truth out. Because..

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You gotta crack the marble, sully the page – and it does often feel like that, like we’re staining something pure with something less than.. something a bit shit. Whatever confidence I have – there’s gotta be some somewhere, as my mammy says, if I really didn’t believe in myself would I still be trying? – so whatever it is that keeps me trying, it’s not what I haven’t written, it’s buried amongst what I squeezed out… okay I’m a bit squeamish about the shit metaphors so I’m dropping them now..

The writer must write and they must stop expecting perfection every time. If you aren’t sorely disappointed then you’re probably frighteningly delusional. Though I’ve heard that works in Hollywood 😀

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However…

This might be the one piece of advice that I can’t question, would probably need my head examined if I did, and yet knowing the wisdom in doing something and actually doing it are two very different concerns. Worse – for me – is when you do manage to do something and it doesn’t remotely end up the way you expected. The good advice about writing shit, just leaves you with a lot of shit (okay last excrement word play.. promise)

For many writers however much sense it makes, actually powering through is a very difficult task. Unfortunately I know no neat little tricks to get round it. If you fall of the wagon one day, get up the next and try again. And the next. And the next. This isn’t just a matter of the first draft. Writing, like exercise, is a battle of will.

For me it can be a peculiar form of torture, alleviated by all too brief Eureka moments, a sudden realisation, twist, revelation (entirely textual not spiritual, though it feels almost as if it were). On the odd occasion I have attempted to explain this no one gets why I would do it, how I can still love it. But I do. Passion can be painful. But if its there, you’ll find a way to endure. And if its not, you’ll probably still be working on chapter three a decade on. That’s okay. It’s a personal battle and the true measure of the results is yours alone to judge.

I’ve mastered for the most part the powering through. It’s a fight every day, so that answer can change every day, but the books are balancing in my favour. My first novels were masterclasses in ‘don’t stop, just write’ and testament to how hard that is. So much so I had to cut 70,000 from the first one. The problem is that’s pretty much where my editing days ended.

I don’t edit.

I read through and tweak. Sometimes. But shit needs a lot more than mere tweaking.

I could argue my first drafts have improved with time. It could be that I still struggle with reading my own work. I’ve heard some actors feel this way. I don’t know much about the practical realities of acting, but I know a writer needs to read their own stuff. And in a sense I do. I read as I write. Sometimes the flow carries me to the end of a chapter, but often I stop every few lines, to read and tweak (if necessary) and think where the direction is taking me and where I might prefer to direct it. And if I don’t like what I read, or the direction its going in, that’s where the ‘don’t stop, just write’ mantra gets particularly painful.

I have one sequel I’m 40,000 words into, and was really quite enjoying it, til I wrote a scene and now, I’ve tried but I just can’t seem to pick it up again. All I can think about is that one wrong scene.

I have another which earned me a kind rejection from an editor,  who advised I get an agent, rework the issue she’d flagged and re-sub. I haven’t looked at it since.

I have a start on a kids book that I totally bungled the voice on. I could probably write it in about two months, it’d be exactly the kind of thing I would have loved aged ten, but I think the only way I’ll return to it is if I start completely from scratch.

The list goes on. Having mastered powering through step one, I now feel like I have to master powering through step two. I often feel that the only good edit looks like this

paper

I’m sure I’m wrong.

It’s fucking brilliant advice. It is…

But… if you are having some issues with putting it into practice and making it work for you, this might help.

1… Don’t stop thinking.

Its easy to get caught up in the word counts, deadlines. To put your head down terrified that if you pause those fingers for longer than it takes to find the capslock key, you’ll end up frozen. If you allow yourself to think, maybe all you’ll think about is how bad it is. Thinking is the untalked about part of writing, which is a shame because thinking is the most important bit. You have to discipline your mind as much as you have to discipline your fingers, it’s as easy to get caught up in a cycle of ‘oh my god I suck’ as it is to get caught up in Candy Crush Saga. But you can’t stop thinking, questioning the path you’ve chosen for your character, the dialogue you’ve written, decisions made and you have to learn the difference between something being wrong and something just needing  a bit of finessing.

2…Don’t stop listening to your gut

If something feels wrong, it’s wrong –  nine times out of ten –  but you need to learn the difference between fearing its wrong and knowing its wrong. Every word I write leaves me unsure, but some few leave me a little more unsure than usual. They tend to stick. This is why I find it useful to go back the next day and read over what I wrote. Most often they still feel wrong. In the majority of cases it’s a story issue – a matter of driving the scene in the wrong direction, putting the wrong tone or emphasis on it, rather than feeling there were better words I could have used. Dusting off the prose is the easier side of editing. This leads me directly to…

3… Don’t ever be afraid to rewrite

There seems at times to be a blurring of the concepts of editing and rewriting. We use them interchangeably, yet when looked at closer, often you’ll find the average writer has a real fear of rewriting, especially rewriting that involves scrapping anything.

I’m a scrapper. Sometimes for the wrong reasons but..

If you continue to write – to power through rather than listen to your gut – you could end up spending a lot of wasted time going in the wrong direction. One small mistake can knock everything out. Go back to where things were last good and start again. If you think you can tweak it into shape, by all means try, but don’t be afraid to scrap. I’ve heard a lot of advice – all writers in fact that I know give this advice – that nothing should ever be thrown away. That’s not something I would necessarily agree with, although I won’t insist upon it either way, but I would say, a writer should never be precious about their prose, any more than a painter should be precious about his paint. He doesn’t save his dirty palette wrapped in clingfilm to preserve the mix for his next painting. He trusts that his eye will guide him to know what is needed when it is needed. The words aren’t going to run out and neither is your ability to put them together. Each story will require its own peculiar configurations, recycling and pasting in never feels organic or stable to me. Perhaps my issue with editing in a nutshell.

It might be another way of saying kill your darlings, but there is something incredibly liberating about scrapping. You just have to know when you’re being insecure and when you’re being brave.

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Shouting to Oblivion: A writer’s voice

writer-island

Ahhhhhh voice. It’s the ultimate writers luvvie word. It’s better than subtext, or conceit or transgressive, it’s a universal code for ‘I’m in the club’ a handshake of a word, three raps on the door and cross your eyes.. though not quite as much fun. It’s really surprising in fact I haven’t written about it before.

I have thought about it, a dozen times, put a pin on it and stuck it in the corner of my mind. I have read and argued countless times over it and notably, it’s more of a discussion, a near civilized attempt to define, with little to no disagreement on its status. As I said, luvvie word.

Voice – just in case you haven’t heard – is the Holy Grail.

The most common thing that will crop up, guaranteed really, is ‘there’s no one agreed upon definition’ or ‘no one can tell you exactly what it is’. A willow-the-wisp word? No, it’s simpler than that. Definitions are where writers like to out write one another. But sometimes the word itself is the closest we have to a working description. And once you have written enough and read enough, it’s good enough; our only worry then becomes do we have it?

It isn’t just the ability to make a noise on paper we seek, its the right kind of noise. And the most common argument – where the discussion nears the uncivilised – is whether teaching technique, the influence of critiques, editors and fellow writers, benefits or destroys our voice.

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My take on voice is that it requires an adjective to begin to discuss it in any useful way. We too quickly assume others know we mean a standard literary voice, or a distinctive voice, or a voice suitable for a certain genre, chick lit being the one most easily defined by its chatty OH EM GEE! tone. And no, voice isn’t a tone, I’d agree, though like plot, story and structure, tone, style and voice will overlap so much it just gets painfully confusing if you are going to get hung up on the semantics.

Voice is always present, we hear what we read, in that same odd way we see what we write about. We couldn’t identify it in an audio-line up (or play up?) but we feel as though we could when we’re immersed in it. It’s that feeling you get when you open up a Terry Pratchett, of returning to an old friend and his tales.

I have never been a huge fan of short stories – I know. Irony Alert. We should get a big red button for that – and in part it does come down to voice or lack thereof, at least lack of distinction. One consideration that divides and helps explain the worry some have over the effect of teachers on our work, is whether voice is mostly something superficial that arises from the peculiar way we choose to express ourselves with the written word – quirks in syntax, elaborate metaphors a la Chandler or absurd over the top analogies a la Chuck Wendig (with fuck and monkeys guaranteed to make it in somehow), the run on sentences and soft rumbling onomatopoeia of Grassic Gibbon, as distinct as our own actual voices. Or whether these are simply the patterns of language common to the masses with too few variations to truly allow distinction without limiting yourself much like a cartoon, stuck in the same clothes, with the same lines, repeating the same few scenarios. There are many who believe that voice is really the emergence of the personality through the words. And it is through the way we explore our stories, the characters we bring to life that we reveal it. Can we recognise a King paragraph without the obvious clues of names, or is it embedded in his characters, the slow build, the dark tone that seeps through their thoughts, their actions, their interactions, the foreshadowing of regret and poor choices?

writer-nick

When considering short stories, they give us such a restrictive space to explore any individuality and often the voice, as dictated by stylistic choices, can seem samey, while the room to develop the personality of the author is never present. And it is a concern that critique sites can also give rise to. Most of our fellow writers won’t read our entire work, at best we might get a few chapters reviewed, often merely the one, with a heavy emphasis on keeping it short and sweet when you’re considering where to put your dividers. It’s very easy for voice to quickly become a miasmic drone. Concern over the repetitive nature of advice cited such as beware adverbs, try and stick to said as a tag, speaks directly to this.

The question really is what do the powers that be mean when they say voice? That’s the relevant part isn’t it and they say it a lot. It’s a luvvie word..

I’m looking for voice, a really great voice, like totally different and unique, is a sentence I have come to despair of a little. If you follow #mswl you’ll understand what I mean. And honestly I think they mean both definitions. To return to an analogy I have used before, a rock label isn’t going to sign Shirley Bassey unless she sounds like Nine Inch Nails. On the other hand they might sign Nine Inch Nails if they have a sampling of Shirley Bassey on their reworked version of Fuck me Like an Animal (you should read the lyrics, they’re poetic).

There are always going to be rules, boundaries that will guide those looking to market and make money, rather express their inner animal, and while you can push, can benefit greatly from pushing at those boundaries, there are limits. Reading and learning techniques, however you choose to do this, can only benefit. For me reading probably trumps the nitty-gritty feedback you might encounter in writer’s groups, but does include reading other aspiring writers works with an eye to critiquing. Most agents, editors and more importantly, readers aren’t looking for  you to become the next David Foster Wallace. In fact they really don’t want DFW when they pick up the next Marion Keyes. Reading will teach you that in romance ‘oh my darling’ she gasped breathlessly is par for the course and that even, much as you wanna get all Elmore on that redundancy you kinda like the effect a wee bit more than.. ‘oh my darling, she said..

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There will probably always be a debate about what it truly means when the gatekeepers ask for unique and whether they have in fact entirely managed to subvert the meaning, but if you like pushing those boundaries having that smoky rock voice and metal-scraping-on-concrete guitar riff will let you away with a lot more Bassey. Pairing the comfortably familiar with the superficial basics, gives you far more freedom to take readers where they really aren’t comfortable going in those spaces where we explore our real vision. I can’t speak to whether the opposite is true, if elaborate tricks of prose can disguise having nothing to say.. but if you want to find out, let me know.

My recent conversion to short stories has been unexpectedly illuminating when it comes to voice. In terms of a revealing who I am through my writing, certainly stylistically, I have tended to regard my blog as the best place to indulge. It’s one of the reasons I have maintained it – as I enjoy having a space where I can just express myself that freely. I can mix literary theory with bad jokes and Scottish-isms, make silly puns and wee rhymes and just have fun with words in any way I feel like while ranting about superhero mash-ups. There are no inhibitions that naturally arise when you write, as I do, in character.

Character voice is seen as distinct from writer voice and in the sense that a character is simply a derivative of you, your imaginings of a certain feeling, time, personality, I would disagree. Certainly in the deeper spaces we don’t ever leave ourselves behind. On the other hand, I do think that if we can get inside that character, truly have a distinct feel for them and let that guide our choices whether that’s the decisions they make or the way they use language to convey this, we can leave the more obvious shackles of writers’ voice behind.

I’m starting to question that. I’ve found in reading some absolutely amazing short stories that there is often far more space than I had previously considered to explore. It does often require a much closer attention to detail as both a reader and a writer. And there is also much sameness. Even in the 1% that get through. My writing has certain defined characteristics I find set it apart from most – happy endings are rare in sci-fi at the moment, an upbeat love story that ends in a handshake – and even finding myself willing to write in genres and on subjects I have previously avoided like James Patterson novels (sorry.. ) I still feel I can – or do – represent them in my own way. But perhaps only if they read with a careful eye. My voice, my character voice, feels oddly me. Not in the way my blog is – I still don’t rhyme in fiction..mostly – but I am using certain techniques over and over, certain tones seem to dominate, and I can discern something distinctly not distinct about them. Something is happening: am I emerging into my writer’s true self or am I reducing?

I’ve found as a reader I’m tending to the literary.. I know! where is that big red button, I think I might need to eat it.. The stories I admire have vague and not often hospitable worlds, in the sense I feel no need to dwell in them for the length of a novel, nor even return to them for a brief epilogue, the themes are always dark – loss, regret, guilt could probably sum up most – and the characters are defined by ambiguity, in their desires, their actions and most of all their feelings. What I admire most about them is their voice and given all of the above, which is not Disney, when I say voice I think I mean the technicalities of expression, the style, the tone, the words. There is a certain unifying factor even here, but I wonder if its in the skill of the hand at work. It’s a voice I could never emulate, perhaps my chirpy, fuck -this-for-a-game-of-scissors-paper-spock nature wouldn’t allow it, and perhaps that’s the truth of voice.

writers she could nver be

The Mid-action Start v the Set Up: Beginnings and Misunderstandings

There are many common pieces of writing advice floating about the interwebs. I don’t know where many of them come from, often they seem to start life as one man’s preference, but once they catch on, the effect is akin to sitting on old chewing gum, almost impossible to extricate yourself from.

One such piece of advice is the notion that we need to start a story mid-action – in chase, just as the blow strikes our heroes jaw, with gun to his head. There is good chance that mid-action is mid-story and there is no good reason a story can’t start at the beginning.

Let's start at the very beginning

However, worse than this is the knee jerk reaction that the alternative – the valid alternative – is the Set Up. Writers resentful of the mid-action advice cite that their preference is for slower stories with slower starts, the introduction where you get to know your characters and their world. The Set Up has entered notoriety in the Pet Peeves Hall of Fame. So reviled it deserved multiple subdivisions, lest we think we can sneak by with a set up in disguise.

  • School Showcase: A character introducing the requisite best friend and the school bully
  • Family Showcase: Introductions of parents, siblings, pets
  • Room Tour: A character sitting in her room, thinking, looking over her stuff
  • Emo Kid: A character sitting and thinking about all his problems
  • Normal No More: A character lamenting how normal, average, and/or lame her life is, which is the writer setting us up for the big change that’s about to happen

~ 12 ClichĂ©s To Avoid When Starting Your Story, Courtney Carpenter, from the Writers’ Digest

The argument – the automatic defence – is that virtually all of our favourite stories, certainly most of the classics, began with a set up: To Kill a Mockingbird. The Secret Garden. Great Expectations.

The issue I believe lies with the ‘versus’. The idea being that a mid-action beginning and the Set Up are doing different things, appealing to different kinds of readers and belonging to different genres. After all, not all stories involve guns to the head. However, they aren’t. You can write a literary character study and open mid-action, even if that action is an argument, a garden party or walking in on your husband in his black lace thong. Equally you can write a romping adventure and start with a set up. All beginnings must do the same job, and wherever you choose to start your story, the key is you’re starting your story.

Every beginning is an introduction. Every beginning is a set up. Is there a better way to introduce James Bond than jumping onto a speeding train? Is there a better way to introduce Westeros, the cruel winter-gripped world than with three men who die brutally by their own folly and a wee bit of help from a mysterious evil force?

Every beginning is also in the middle. Even Oliver Twist is mid-story, because we all come into this world with baggage already strapped to us. Our parents, our time, our country, our genetics. And by the time most readers catch up with us, this is even more true. No day we can begin on doesn’t have a yesterday. There is always going to be backstory to where we are and how we got there. Your job is to make it interesting, so interesting the reader wants to know it all.

Which leads us to the one thing that every beginning must do: it must hook the reader. You must present something of interest to the reader and then start leading them in a direction they want to go in.

‘mum shouted for me to get up for school. I groaned and snuggled deeper into the covers’ probably isn’t going to do it.

There is nothing wrong with an ordinary character. Nothing wrong with starting with the boring guy who lives the boring life, but ironically if you wish to do this, you have to make the boring guy really interesting, while being boring. Otherwise there are millions – probably literally by now – of other writers willing to step up.

The house stood on a slight rise just on the edge of the village…Not a remarkable house by any means – it was about thirty years old, squattish, squarish, made of brick and had four windows set in the front of a size and proportion which more or less exactly failed to please the eye.

~ The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams

The argument often given to justify the Set Up is that we need to allow the reader to bond with the character. Bonding takes time, yes, but it takes the time of chapters, sometimes nearly a book’s worth. But more importantly, it’s not achieved by giving us a list of their favourite films. I have friends who watch, read and listen to stuff I would rather weed the Queen’s lawn with a pair of tweezers than be subjected to, and they are still great friends. The best way to introduce and bond us to your character is to let them get on with living, ie put them into action. This might go some way to explain the mid-action confusion. If we see them in danger will we not empathise with them and be drawn in?

Yes and no. Done right and we can feel for a character. Seeing Black Widow tied up at the start of Avengers Assemble doesn’t make me want to cry for her, even if I wouldn’t be offering to swap, but by the end of it I am cheering for her. And again can you think of a better way to introduce and define the character? We are arguing show versus tell here far more than we are arguing set-up versus mid-action.

Because its still a set up, an introduction;  this thread has no part to play in the main story. The Russians, the information she wanted, it’s irrelevant, and it’s just another day in the life of Natasha Romanoff. The only important plot point is that she is being sent on a mission. That mission leads us to the next character we need to be introduced to – Bruce Banner. It’s all character introduction and set up. Film doesn’t have this same weird division that novel writing does, which is ironic given how many blame film for the mid-action mania. It’s basic screenwriting law that your first third is set up, leading us up to the inciting incident. Take some of the biggest blockbusters out there:

  • Guardians of the Galaxy – kid watching his mum die, listening to eighties tunes, getting kidnapped. This is backstory, it’s as close to tell as you can get bar narrating over the top. And some even do this.
  • The Mummy – we are given the backstory of Imhotep’s betrayal and love for Anck Su Namun before we meet the hero O’Connell and cowardly Benny in the sands of Egypt thousands of years later.
  • Stardust –  both book and film adaptation –  we get narration about the Wall, the town of Wall, the market, the king, and of course, Tristam’s conception.

I’ve noticed a tendency in those who put an emphasis on the introduction, to overplay the sympathy card. It’s a tired and clichĂ© trick. Does it ever work? Even people I know who love Hunger Games claim Katniss is cold. Heartless. The girl who mothers a child she’s supposed to kill, who makes her first kill in retribution, who volunteers to almost certain death to save her sister. Facts and effect are odd bedfellows. You can make your readers fall in love with your psychopath, Mr Lector and still maintain his grisly passion. In Oliver Twist is it his orphan status that bonds us to him or is it the fact that he stood up and asked for more? We’re not bonding with Romanoff over her helplessness, the connection happens when she shows us her helplessness is just a routine, we cheer at the looks of surprise on the Russians’ faces, and we’re now intrigued by the character and therefore interested to know what that phone call was all about. The key is intrigue. Defying expectations and making the reader curious to see what else the story might hold. Everything you present from world to character can and should contribute to this effect. This is what draws the reader into the story and make them care, not because your character is worthy but because they were engaging. That’s fun. And we like fun.

Tom did play hookey and he had a very good time. He got back home barely in season to help Jim, the small coloured boy, saw next-days wood and split the kindlings before supper – at least he was there in time to tell  his adventures to Jim while Jim did three-fourths of the work.

~ The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain.

Part of the reason we draw this distinction between mid-action and set up is because of the divisions we place on plot and character. We talk of character driven and plot driven novels but I’m never convinced it’s a particularly effective means of dividing genres. Often what we really mean is realistic versus idealised characters, contemporary everyday setting versus adventure fantasy setting. Citing or even thinking your story is plot driven ignores how Natasha’s innate nature leads Fury to choose her to recruit/charm the Hulk, how it dictates her style of fighting, tricking Loki into thinking she is helpless. Good story always meshes and works with your character, otherwise you risk a contradictory mess which breaks the reader’s trust.

And this leads to one of the key mistakes in the Set Up. Too many approach it with the idea that they should be setting up their characters before they engage the plot. A set up is not merely about the static elements of your story – character description, world building – in fact I would say the set up primarily is about setting up the plot. Putting everything needed for your story to happen in place.

The beginning of Gone Girl might be said to be an introduction to the characters, but in actuality it’s an introduction to their relationship and the manipulations, machinations and justifications of a couple tearing each other apart, as each tries to get you on their side.

‘Should I remove my soul before I come inside?’ Her first line upon arrival. It had been a compromise: Amy demanded we rent, not buy, in my little Missouri hometown, in her firm hope that we wouldn’t be stuck here long.

~ Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn

Their perception of each other is at the crux of the book and how it creates confusion and misdirects the reader. Their relationship is the plot, its the hub around which everything spins.

As always what you withhold is as important as what you show. Narrative drive hinges on what is left out and the start needs to demonstrate strong narrative drive. Part of the reason so many have an issue with the Set Up is because writers too often waste words on the unnecessary; the parts that can confidently be left out because they are either so generic they add nothing to the story or can easily be inferred from other more intriguing details. Sometimes what isn’t said is our entire reason for reading. In the opening chapter of Harry Potter, we are introduced to You-know-Who, only we don’t know who. But we really want to, more so because of everything else we are given.

‘Don’t be sorry, my dear sir, for nothing could upset me today! Rejoice, for You-Know-Who has gone at last! Even Muggles like yourself should be celebrating this happy, happy day!’

~ Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, J.K Rowling

All the strands of her story are set in place, from the secret otherworld, the Dursleys’ deep dislike of their odd relatives, to the defeat of You-Know-Who to Harry Potters accidental destiny:

One small hand closed on the letter beside him and he slept on, not knowing he was special, not knowing he was famous, not knowing he would be woken in a few hours time by Mrs Dursley’s scream as she opened the front door to put out the milk bottles… that at this very moment, people meeting in secret all over the country were holding up their glasses and saying in hushed voices: ‘To Harry Potter – the boy who lived!’

~ Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, J.K Rowling,

Beginnings Part One: To Kill A Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird – apart from being one of my favourite novels – is an enduring classic that is so beloved that the news that its author Harper Lee is publishing a sequel nearly sixty years later, has set the literary world abuzz. Even those (illiterate monsters!) who haven’t read it or seen the film, have likely felt its influence, as countless authors have drawn on its central themes and even attempted to recreate the uniquely powerful scenes that help shape our concept of race and justice. Although for me, at its heart its a story of childhood, not a sermon, but an adventure.

its a sin to kill a mockingbird

The very first thing that strikes anyone who picks it up is the beautiful writing. This is both overlooked as a reason an agent might choose to read on and conversely used as an excuse to explain everything else she ‘got away with’. In fact every time someone points out a classic or highly regarded writer did something that runs contrary to some popular don’t list, it is usually dismissed as the ultimate exception; of course Harper Lee can do it, she is Harper Lee. But why wouldn’t you aim to be Harper Lee? Does any writer start out thinking, I will be barely sufficient and hope that the world wants to pay to read my mediocrity? Do we sweat and toil and sit up night after night hoping to be a C minus? You might land in the mud but don’t aim there to make the landing softer.

‘To kill a mockingbird’s path to eventual publication is undoubtedly an intriguing one. It certainly seems as though it was a book even the fates were determined to see written. However, its not entirely helpful to compare the path to publication in the 1950’s with today. Is it equally foolish to compare its words? It might be foolish to compare any words but I think as long as a book is being picked up and read, it is relevant. Undoubtedly, it’s literary fiction and the category it would fall under should be factored in, however beyond that its just a story. And one whose influence continues. We all still speak the same language.

However beautiful writing is frustratingly vague. What precisely does it do right? This is where I sympathise with Chuck (he doesn’t mind me calling him Chuck, mostly as it’s his name and he doesn’t read this) Its really hard to pinpoint and not end up being all ‘I know it when I see it’ about it.

Easier always to start with where you are going wrong, or in these instances, looking at what others have done wrong, right. Get me?

In the list of don’ts one that comes up repeatedly is backstory. Even Chucks more positive spin begins with a warning about over front loading the donkey (story). Yet Lee frontloads the tale of eight year old Scout and one hot memorable summer, with the paddling of her distant ancestor up the creek just after the American Civil War.

“I said if he wanted to take a broad view of the thing, it really started with Andrew Jackson. If general Jackson hadn’t run the Creeks up the creek, Simon Finch would never have paddled up the Alabama..”

Some narration alienates, some narration invites. Some narration seeks to be authoritative, shutting down discussion and is more concerned with sounding good. Some just seems to want to get it all over and done with. Lee’s narration is in the voice of a child regaling you all what she did that day; the reader no more nor less than Atticus’ lap, as Scout recounts the circular arguments, her meandering train of thought, the curious interpretations and literal conclusions that bring your attention back and a smile to your lips.

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Lee’s narration is voice. A storyteller’s voice in the truest sense. It isn’t about saying aren’t I clever its about saying curl up and listen.

However, in between her musing, remembering and historicising, Lee does, especially in her first page, manage to pique our curiosity. In agent speak she gives us a hook. In my speak, she has narrative drive. Narrative drive is principally about getting the reader wanting to know more. Once you do, the reader will keep going – even sometimes when they really don’t want to.

“When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow
 when enough years had gone by to enable us to look back on them, we sometimes discussed the events leading to his accident. I maintain that the Ewells started it all, but Jem, who was four years my senior, said it started long before that. He said it began the summer Dill came to us, when Dill first gave us the idea of making Boo Radley come out. “

The opening line tells us Jem broke his arm. Plain and simple. Doing it this way naturally raises the readers interest – the inherent suggestion that there must be a story behind how. One that doesn’t get answered until the very end. So yeah one hell of a story.

Putting your ending in your beginning is a clever, though difficult, trick. You have to know specifically how much to reveal and how much to withhold. The key is how the information is presented. The result given – the broken arm – is perhaps for those who know the book, one of the least interesting parts of the story. Even if you haven’t read it, kids break bones all the time, its not an overly exciting incident. What Lee does, is she promises us there is a story with the simple phrase, ‘when enough years had gone by to enable us..’ This tells us that even years later they were still thinking about, talking about, the events but the real key is the word ‘enable’. With that one word she has suggested trauma, that perspective, healing, the kind provided only by time, was needed. She has implied a whole lot of drama is about to unfold, if we keep reading. This is echoed in one other word found smuggled unobtrusively in the very first line: ‘badly’. Aye, an adverb (no smug grins please.. oh wait that’s me). This one simple word adds a little shove to our curiosity, without knocking us over the head. This wasn’t your ordinary broken arm.

Moreover by choosing the plain adverb over the ‘power verb’ – sadly if you haven’t come across that term yet, you almost certainly will eventually – she maintains voice. Seconded by the other adverb in the first line – I know TWO! The slight awkwardness of the phrasing, ‘got his arm badly broken’ along with the specification of ‘nearly thirteen’ subtly enforce the idea of a child talking to us. When was the last time you heard someone say, ‘when I was nearly thirty four’? Age – thirteen and three quarters, nearly thirteen – is important when you’re young enough to think nearly thirteen is nearly ancient.

But she doesn’t stop there – it’s not a ‘do for the beginning’ approach. What you bring to your first lines should be exactly what you bring in every other line.

‘But Jem, who was four years my senior..’

Don’t those four years matter when you are eight? How much more than when you are forty?

‘when Dill first gave us the idea of making Boo Radley come out.’

Slid neatly in and quickly moved on from, the reader still noticed. Who or what is a boo Radley and how did they make ‘it’ come out??

A beginning isn’t some convoluted technique distinct from the general practices of writing. One of the reasons agents and editors – the good ones – can use those first few lines to judge is precisely because they should be typical, not atypical, of your story and your ability to engross your reader. If you as a writer can’t understand this, it’s time to learn, for its almost guaranteed that if it isn’t working, the rest of your novel will be riddled with issues.

Lets start at the very beginning: the most important words you’ll ever write

Let's start at the very beginning

I have noticed more and more an emphasis within writing circles; one that perhaps more than any other part of writing – barring adverbs obviously – seems to arise across the different platforms – from novice to expert to agent to editor, and even, now and again, it troubles that rare voice, the reader. It’s hard to quantify as a ‘rule’ since it doesn’t offer any specific admonishments, less of a to-do than a make sure when you do, you do it right. Or as is increasingly the case, an ever growing list of to-don’t’s. Really how many of our common rules haven’t been a don’t? Put simply everybody seems to be talking about getting those first words – pages – right and the unerring consensus is that whatever you do or don’t do, will make or break you.

I read three articles within the space of a day all of which talked about the beginning and its importance.  In The Write Life literary agents give us a list of the worst ways to open your novel while a Writers Digest articles sums up its list of common openings in kids books with ‘they’re almost always a rejection’. Um, aren’t all books almost always a rejection? Or did the ‘only-1%-of-the-slushpile-get-published statistic’ change recently? Of course its so much easier to sound off about what you don’t like. Which made the final article by Chuck Wendig an unexpected pleasure to read. Sort of. While I agree with the general advice and deeply appreciate missing out on the list of don’s, it’s all a bit vague, adding up to if you fuck this bit up, then you’re really fucked.

If we take Chuck’s pov and all those agents pov’s and editors pov’s then we might have to accept that the beginning is that important and if we accept that then doesn’t that make the advice given just – more? – as important? And if you take on all of those editors’ advice and agents’ advice and Chuck’s advice, you might be left wondering what the **** can I write?

Instead of saying write whatever the fuck you want (much as I would like to) I’ve decided to take a sort of Russian doll approach with this. A series within a series. I could address every don’t on the list, (cause I have that much spare time) but I can’t help but feel that what we really need here is some do’s. More specifically we need to start looking at what makes a beginning work. I’ve decided to take three books, of different styles, genres, and times; I’ll look at what worked, why it worked and how it might break the rules. As if there were actually rules..

I hope it might be helpful (normally I’m just sounding off 😀 ) because I do agree there is so much we can learn as writers from those opening lines and for those of us seeking publication, traditional or indie, it really can make all the difference in the world.

music head

An Affair to Repeat..

 Cloning Shakespeare

Returning to the Common Advice series with what is probably the most commonly known. In fact its so common, that no one even bothers to say it much these days. Its been thrown out so often, we seem to have thrown it out permanently. And it would seem most writers are very glad.

Creative writing teachers should be purged until every last instructor who has uttered the words “Write what you know” is confined to a labor camp. Please, talented scribblers, write what you don’t. The blind guy with the funny little harp who composed The Iliad , how much combat do you think he saw?
  ~P.J. O’Rourke

WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW

Old Rourke (was he old?) wasn’t alone.

If I write what you know, I bore you; if I write what I know, I bore myself, therefore I write what I don’t know.
~Robert Duncan

Write what you know. That should leave you with a lot of free time.

~Howard Nermerov

It’s a piece of advice that seems to be quoted only so that people can assure you not to follow it, which makes an interesting change. And taken on the surface, like most advice, it seems like nonsense. The easiest rebuff is science fiction or fantasy or every romance book ever (cause no one ever knew that guy, who treated them that way..)

Science fiction writers, I am sorry to say, really do not know anything. We can’t talk about science, because our knowledge of it is limited and unofficial, and usually our fiction is dreadful

~Philip K. Dick

To return to story and the hard science that makes my love of it seem oh so much more worthy :), if we write to figure out what if? saying we must only write what we know would undermine its most basic purpose –  to understand what we can’t. If we limit ourselves to only what we know, well, we limit ourselves full stop. Shakespeare didn’t even hold himself to any known language. If poets, and by extension writers, are to be the unacknowledged (or acknowledged) legislators of the world or even one tiny  jigsaw piece of it, then we must push beyond the known. Its not so much our duty as our passion. We write what burns up our brains, we write because we must know.

Which might naturally lead you to want to tweak it slightly and re-render it, ‘write what you love’. If you did you’d be in agreement with what most writers, the great, the good and the obscure, think.

There is more pleasure to building castles in the air than on the ground

~Edward Gibbon

It’s better to write about things you feel than about things you know about

~L. P. Hartley

But there is an sneaky contradiction in there. Can you love what you do not know? If we write what we love, are we not by definition writing what we know? Writing with love is not the same as writing of that which we love. Accepting that passion must drive us, or we’d be rather silly to attempt a time consuming hobby which rarely leads to any success, monetary or otherwise, does that really speak to what you are writing about?

I have a friend who is passionate about zombies. Do not fear, they exist only in literature. Which means he is passionate about literature. If he writes what he loves, he is writing what has already been written. Even if he does a Max Brooks, and is credited with bringing something fresh to the genre, he’s still not only drawing from what he knows but what he knows is drawn from the limits of someone else’s imagination. Not getting philosophical on you. There is a real danger here. Passion is a great thing, we rely on it, not just in ourselves but in our readers. And didn’t we all start out as readers, inspired to recreate? There is a great deal of fiction out there which for all intents and purposes is just a tribute to a book. And that book might well be a tribute to another book. Art eating itself from the inside out. Someone said that to me recently – if I recall who I will credit them. Its a good phrase. Each book, each copy is poorer than the last, each delivering ever decreasing impact in passion, in influence, in money. Eventually there will be nothing left to copy.

It exists. It makes money. Some of it might even survive the test of time. But if you are looking for me to advise you do it, I’d suggest you make a bet on pigs flying.

It could be argued that much of many genres must by definition be drawn from within their own history, that even when it tries, it very absence of reference is a reference in itself.  Can you explore space and not have your reader think of Star Trek? Can you write fantasy and avoid LotR? And if you do, as George R.R Martin has found, will you forever be known as the anti-LotR fantasy? Take it further and much of society could be said to be as made-up as fiction. Law – bunch of rules we made up. Politics – bunch of theories we made up. Nothing wrong with that, and nothing wrong with being inspired by art, by your favourite book. These are great places to begin, but if we don’t move beyond, nothing new, be it so simple as a word, is ever created. There are those who work from within a closed circle, sup from a cup which is filled with nothing more than the saliva from those who already supped…:( and I can’t help but wonder if it because they were told ‘write what you love’. And clearly given the plethora of copies of copies around, it, unfortunately, was advice they were all too happy to cling to.

I would be tempted to say write what you love, write what you are terrified of, and curious about, and bewildered by, and amused with and that you find wondrous… pretty much everything you feel 🙂

The historian records, but the novelist creates

E. M. Forster

Setting limits would seem the antithesis of creation, especially when those limits are drawn by what already exists.

So, ignore ‘write what you know’ and write, just write? well…

Okay, I am given to being a little perverse and given my general belief that all writing advice, the good, the bad and the bizarre is only of use when examined in detail and not swallowed in an easily digestible truism, I’m sorely tempted to advise it purely to see people try and figure it out. The one thing that all good writing does is dig. Worrying down under the skin of a thing until you find the blood, until you’re polishing the bone of it. As writers isn’t that a very good muscle to exercise? Regardless of the answer we eventually come to.

But, more than that, there is something about this advice that I have never been able to entirely dismiss. Something about it tugs at the corner of my mind, refusing to let me ignore it. With my first book I was very concerned with research, aware that I was writing in an area where I was completely out of my depth. My main character was a police detective and I’m not. I’ve never been arrested. I’ve never testified. Never dated a policeman. Yet at the same time its not like I was writing about some obscure profession where only one in a million could correct me, or care to correct me, if I got things wrong. I became obsessed with authenticity; researching rank, procedure, terminology. It became so I couldn’t write a sentence, frozen by the thought, is this right?

Which you might naturally think means I needed to stop worrying about writing what I knew and just write. But the exact opposite was the truth.

What I know is people. I’m fascinated, (horrified, terrified, bewildered..) by human nature. Who we are, why we do what we do, how we deal with all the little functions of life, how we interact in close knit settings such as work environments. What I needed to do was remember that. To take what I knew and apply it to this strange new world. To use what I know to figure out what I didn’t..

What we know is much more fundamental than a series of superficial facts gleaned from a textbook and testified to in a qualification. All our experiences and observations have formed a base knowledge which allows us to get through the day, when we have no idea what the day might bring. We call it intuition, instinct, its too visceral to be broken down and every one of us has amassed our own peculiar unteachable understanding. You might even argue we write to share this knowledge with the world. We write what we know, not because we must, not because we should, but because you really can’t write anything else.

 And maybe all you know is other books. But I suspect no one lives in that bubble. So maybe the better advice would be to ask yourself, what is it you know that is worth writing? We’re not right, anymore than we’re wrong. There is no right, we’re just shuffling, bumbling through, with nothing but this inner knowing to guide us; its that or follow the herd. Try it this way, Write what you know, not what the world tells you.

The Never-changing story..

A slight tangent to the Common Advice for Writers series.

In a sense all writers enter the arena – like that image 😀 – as novices, and like every novice before us there is a sense that our trials and tribulations are unique to us, as if we had invented the notion of narrative and hooks..

AS Hook himself says..

He came for a Hook and got a story..

And that was a very long time ago.

I said that the common advice out there felt well distilled but even I hadn’t realised just how long it might have been stewing. Here’s a few writers quotes that show what vexes the writer today has been vexing the writer for decades and likely will continue to vex for decades to come.

REMOVE UNNECESSARY WORDS

 Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be – Mark Twain

Atticus told me to delete the adjectives and I’d have the facts – Harper Lee

The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do – Thomas Jefferson

Although for every man standing for, there is one standing agin..

In a letter to his editor, Raymond Chandler let loose some words I am sure every writer carries in them..

By the way, would you convey my compliments to the purist who reads your proofs and tell him or her that I write in a sort of broken-down patois which is something like the way a Swiss waiter talks, and that when I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will stay split, and when I interrupt the velvety smoothness of my more or less literate syntax with a few sudden words of barroom vernacular, this is done with the eyes wide open and the mind relaxed but attentive. The method may not be perfect, but it is all I have. I think your proofreader is kindly attempting to steady me on my feet, but much as I appreciate the solicitude, I am really able to steer a fairly clear course, provided I get both sidewalks and the street between.

And followed it with a poem. It does rather go on, but this part I thought worth quoting.

The rules are clean: they are right, I ween,
But where do they make the thing?

In the waxy gloam of a Funeral Home
Where the gray morticians bow?

SHOW DON’T TELL

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

For me, a page of good prose is where one hears the rain [and] the noise of battle – John Cheever

You don’t write about the horrors of war. No. You write about a kid’s burnt socks lying in the road – Richard Price

Storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it – Hannah Arendt

Drama, instead of telling us the whole of a man’s life, must place him in such a situation, tie such a knot, that when it is untied, the whole man is visible – Leo Tolstoy

KILL YOUR DARLINGS

Everywhere I go I’m asked if I think the university stifles writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them. There’s many a bestseller that could have been prevented by a good teacher – Flannery O’Connor

Most editors are failed writers — but so are most writers – T.S Eliot

Easy reading is damn hard writing – Nathanial Hawthorne

A good style should show no signs of effort. What is written should seem a happy accident – W.Somerset Maugham

CLICHES

I’d rather be caught holding up a bank than stealing so much as a two-word phrase from another writer – Jack Smith

All my best thoughts were stolen by the ancients – Ralph Waldo Emerson

 

AUTHORIAL INTRUSION

An author in his book must be like God in the universe, present everywhere and visible nowhere – Gustave Flaubert

For all those who are too attached to the phrase ‘moderm readers’ as if all things were once permitted and we must lament the passing of great art as the age of rules has begun. These ones I really do agree with..(and not just because he is Scottish)

Damn the words, the story is the thing – Robert Louis Stevenson

The difficulty is not to a write but to write precisely what you mean; not to affect your reader but to affect him precisely in the way you want – Robert Louis Stevenson

And lastly one for our times, the age of the liberation of the bottom drawer…This goes so far back we might well have uncovered the origins of the Gatekeepers..

Times are bad. Children no longer obey their parents, and everyone is writing a book  – Cicero..

How many unpublished writers does it take to screw in a lightbulb?

.. 🙂 The punchline should be obvious by the end of the post

Next up in the common advice for writers series

Join a Writers Site

I did debate somewhat how to title this one. Every writer is advised to get feedback, with the emphasis on it being impartial and informed  ie not your mammy. Very few of us can afford a professional editor, and even if we could there are so many out there – now more than ever – that the chances of being ripped off are high.

The answer that seems to have cropped up is writers’ sites. Used to be writer’s groups in church halls. Who better to help fellow writers? Who knows words, understands how to construct a story, build a character, grow a relationship? Who has grappled and groaned with the very same issues? Genius…

Firstly the basic advice to get feedback from someone who is prepared to be honest (without it breaking a vital relationship in your life or any last shreds of self esteem) is not something I’m going to argue with. I’ve never met anyone who would.

The issue is simply where do you get it.  For me writers sites can present some real issues.

The likely put-down is the blind leading the blind. And no doubt you will find plenty who aptly fit such descriptions. But equally I’ve met plenty who are well educated (far better than I), well read and able to construct beautiful sentences. No the real issue is that we’re all pulling in the same direction. We all want the same things and we all need the same things. And those are fundamentally at odds with one another.

We want support. Its hard – the endless disinterested little slips of rejection, the squeezing extra hours in after work when everyone else is at the pub, the polite patronisation to outright who-are-you-kidding? doubt of friends and families. We feel like fools. Its nice to meet other fools. But what if you look at the work of those fools and think, fools.. Admitting to this would not only mean you might be one too, it would mean attacking that support structure. So a lot of writers, just don’t.

Yet…

We need to be challenged. As Hemingway observed;

There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed

Bleeding usually requires something to cut us.

There’s been a recent article-off (something like a face off but with more obscenities) in the Telegraph after a rather scathing indictment of creative writing courses by (the creative writing teacher) Hanif Kureshi. At its heart is the question – can writing be taught? This is something that seems peculiar to writing. Art schools have been around for centuries. No one considers Monet or Pollock less for having studied, for having mentors who directly influenced and encouraged their work.

Yet this need to be identified as sole proprietors of our output defines writers. And limits us, more than anything else.

It puts the writer in contradiction with themselves. As Neil Gaiman points out

Writers may be solitary but they also tend to flock together: they like being solitary together

We look to others to justify our choices, our abilities, shore up our egos and essentially indulge us in our unpublished woe. We join in moaning about gatekeepers who wouldn’t know good writing if it bit them on their haughty botties. We sympathise with editing between school runs and post amusing ditties about the wonderful eccentricities of us ‘arty folk’. Mercurial, fascinating, brilliant, maddening.. delusional..

In between, some generic advice – most of which you will find in this series – is offered up, a token gesture to the actual need that we thought brought us there in the first place. But in reality, what we need is the one thing almost never given.

Sadly the actual quote by Kureshi which started the storm seems to have been ignored as everyone prefers to feel outraged by his hypocritical attitude.

A lot of my students just can’t tell a story. They can write sentences but they don’t know how to make a story go from there all the way through to the end without people dying of boredom in between. It’s a difficult thing to do and it’s a great skill to have. Can you teach that? I don’t think you can.

Yet the real crux of the issue is in those words.  It isn’t whether you can make anyone a writer, its how we can make anyone who is a writer, a better writer.

He’s identified what is needed, what is not being addressed and shown that even a skilled writer doesn’t know how to address it.  Or indeed the entire faculty. Of course if they are anything like writer’s sites, they likely don’t see that there is any issue at all (beyond a loud mouthed teacher).

It seems writers don’t know how to be writers. We continually attempt to divorce the wordsmith from the storyteller, the artist from the entertainer.  We dissect sentences devoid of context, we pass judgement on what amounts to a fraction of the whole – like breaking Sunflowers into a jigsaw – we debate til the sun goes down and then rises again, the correct forms, without paying any heed to the content the form reveals. We apply generic rules without regard for effect. I keep thinking of this..

lady-gaga-london-takeaway-outfit-hair-fish-chips-gossip-news

Now imagine only commenting on whether she should have worn her stilettoes one inch higher..

It seems re-writing a fellow writer’s sentences is less of an insult, pointing out they can’t keep basic grammar points straight is more acceptable than addressing what they are actually saying. If you are writing a book about a man and that man bores your reader to tears, it won’t matter on a writer’s site, as long as you bore with good grammar. Don’t believe me? If you are looking for ways to raise your troll rating, try mentioning it.

Because what you put into your book is taboo – untouchable, hallowed – that magic that only you can dream up – em.. No. Sorry. Sometimes you just need to be told you’re showing off your bra in the chip shop.

Some writers cling to their beautiful constructions proclaiming they are artists that the masses cannot understand (as if it were difficult to confuse people. I do it daily… ). Others know their grammar isn’t perfect, they are after all storytellers. Both proclaim that they are happy to accept criticism, because the criticism they get is always prescriptive (of no interest to the rule breaker) and grammatical (which never impinges on the storytellers view of their true skill).

When asked what he would do Kureshi responded;

“I would find one teacher who I thought would be really good for me,” he told his audience. “It’s not about the course. The whole thing with courses is that there are too many teachers on them, and most are going to teach you stuff that is a waste of time for you.”

There is some value to this. Taking on mass advice must by default mean considering the lowest common denominator. He just didn’t identify what that one teacher, who is really good for you, does. Must do. Make you bleed.

If someone gives you advice and you want to thank them – and you find you aren’t fighting to force the words out past a locked jaw and swollen ego, they probably didn’t do anything of value for you. It isn’t that you must agree with them in specifics, it isn’t about subsuming your style to fit theirs, abandoning your vision, but rather that they make you think, refuse to allow you to be complacent, to quote Jack Nicholson (kinda), they make you wanna be a better writer.

I often think of Lennon and McCartney, a partnership that always seemed odd to me, made up of men who were opposites in many ways, ways that became much clearer when they released their solo albums. Solo albums that made us all wish they’d get back together (I wasn’t even born and I still wish they had).  Together they were egged on to outdo each other and pull that reluctant praise from their rivals lips, forced to address the issues that would be easier to let slide. Apart it was clear they were surrounded only by yesmen (and women), and their own natural styles with all their natural weaknesses bled through unchecked. Untempered, unchallenged, they became self indulgent.

For the lonely, uncertain writer, writing sites may seem like a safe haven, full of fellow unappreciated genius – but that genius is of no use if it doesn’t challenge us, question our choices, force us to address our weaknesses and work til our bones wear down, to find a way to be better – better than them, better than the bestsellers, better than we thought we could be.

 

 

Got the punchline yet?

 

 

Show me the money..

Back with a doozy.

marks-out-of-10-greetings-card-3000731-470-1344696616000

Show don’t tell 🙂

This might be the Tyson of writing advice. First up it seems to encompass many of the common rules we have already covered – adverbs are tell, dialogue tags are tell. After all both came from Elmore Leonard who said,

These are rules I’ve picked up along the way to help me remain invisible when I’m writing a book, to help me show rather than tell what’s taking place in the story

But more than that it seems to both confuse and vex more than any other piece of advice. Even those writers who are happy to agree with paring down adverbs and tags and all the rest, start to spit when this one is raised. The main argument against returns again and again to this

A story is told.

And it is. All words in the end are tell. Buts that semantics isn’t it? We are quibbling.  Show don’t tell refers to how a book is put together not whether or not is should be painted rather than written, surely?

Let me make it plain, I am a show off 😛 I have an inbuilt dislike of tell that predates any run in with the phrase. This in fact is one of what I call the Unbreakables – three effects that are integral to storytelling. That doesn’t however mean that I don’t sometimes want to scream when I see advice givers throw it around. It does seem to be horrifically misused, which is frustrating considering how much, if understood, it can enrich a story. Here’s my take on the most common misconceptions.

Show exists in place of tell.

All books are a balance.  I don’t think it is even possible to have a book which is entirely show – and believe me, if anyone has given it a good try its me 🙂 On the other hand books which are all tell, or as near as damn it, do exist. In fact the earliest forms of written storytelling – perhaps because they were still evolving from oral traditions – could be said to be told.

Each writer must find their own balance, but in my experience most tend naturally towards tell. I’ve heard many say, I write the way I speak.  The spoken word is the one we use most often so it is natural that the forms we employ here, instinctively, will bleed into our writing. However if you actually look at great oral storytellers it might surprise you to realise how much they incorporate show in their delivery – accents, gestures, facial expressions, direct speech – ie things we can literally see rather than being told. Often they use tell and show in conjunction to reinforce the point. And it is this blend that I think, when achieved, is the most effective.

not happy

All bestsellers use show not tell

Bollocks. Really just plain old bollocks. I could rattle off ten bestsellers right now who all use tell far more than show, I don’t think I could do the opposite. Writing advice and writing practise often seem very much at odds with one another.  That might arise from the desire to teach good techniques rather than best selling ones,  or it might be because most of those giving the advice have never troubled a best seller list themselves.  I actually think in this case there are two specific reasons, which relate back to how misunderstood this advice is.

Action is show. Many imagine that anything actually happening is show, ie, a fight scene, a car chase, anything involving direct speech or specific movements, things being done – which drags into play yet another common rule, the admonition to only use the active voice. Its not wrong per se, its merely a very limited view and worse can lead to some truly terrible writing. I have spoken before about repetitive examples of ‘he walked, he opened, he entered…’ lots of lovely active sentences describing specifically what a character is doing. And you will find plenty of it in best selling pot boilers – they have just got a bit crafty and lopped of the heads of the sentences so they sound a bit less grating. Lee Child is the king of these fragmented action passages.

Action is part of show – it puts us in the moment and reveals what is occurring at a pace that makes it easier for us to both picture it and feel emotionally caught up in it. However I often skip these passages because they are far too long, repetitive and dull. It really doesn’t take much to build a picture in a readers mind and it is important to remember that what we are really interested in is what precipitated the action and its consequences – the internal rather than the external. Yet  often in an attempt to avoid telling us how a character felt we end up being told a whole heap of stuff we just don’t care to know…

Which brings me to..

Show is about details. Again, not wrong as such, just highly limited and potentially misses the entire point of what show really is. Common examples are, don’t say he is angry, say the vein popped in his forehead, don’t say he was scared, say his blood ran to ice.. details once they have passed nicely into clichĂ© can become tell… She spun on her heel, she turned white as a ghost..

However, the main problem with these aren’t that they are clichĂ©d, its that they don’t show a thing. I have never seen a vein pop in anyone’s forehead, I’ve certainly not seen it and thought.. ooh she must be angry. So I am not in the scene, seeing or feeling what is occurring, because this is literary code, bearing no resemblance to reality.  Think about it, when you know someone’s angry, you don’t actually think about how you know. And if you were  to think about it, it would probably involve a very short list of very obvious details – she was shouting I’m really angry with you.. for example 🙂  Yet we eschew both of these because, well, they might be tell!

Some people have an amazing ability to pick out tiny details that just instantly bring a character to life. They have an eye to see those things most of us don’t even realise we are seeing –  until they point them out to us. Envy them, attempt to emulate them if you can, but also accept that for most of us we know someone is angry when they shout, someone is hot when they sweat. A blend of both tell and show works fine in these instances, and we fare better if we keep the emphasis on pace and consistency.

Lastly the misconception that annoys me the most..

Show is easier than tell.

BOLLOCKS! Bollocks bollocks! and Bollocks!

Okay – first up I will admit, its far easier for me to write show than it is for me to write tell. Far. Hold my hands up to that. However, I am – I believe this wholeheartedly – very much in a minority. The vast majority of writers tend much more naturally towards tell. As pointed out above its how we speak, the most primary form of communication, so its entirely natural for that to continue when we sit down to write. Which makes show for most writers much harder. Its made even harder by the fact that they have to balance both and they don’t fully understand how. That balance troubles me too, unfortunately I’m on the other side of it – there isn’t much advice there. Some don’t fully understand why, though I suspect they need to read their own work more. It will tell them all they need to know, if they are willing to listen.

But when writers put down show as the easy option what they are really speaking to is the collection of clichĂ©s and action heavy formulas that litter bestseller lists. They think show is the easy reading option. This misses the entire point. Because when you are in real life, when a story is unfolding around you, there is no narrator to translate, to tell you where this path will lead, what side this character plays on, what their strengths are, their needs and desires.. there is just you trying to figure out what you’re seeing.. Tell is certainty. Tell is assurance. Tell is a money back guarantee. Show – show is realising you might get it wrong, show is letting your instincts run free unfettered by the fatherly hand of narration. Show is me preferring the bag guy to the hero. Show is the possibility of heartbreak without warning. Show is about living it and that doesn’t come with any guarantees.

 

(ETA: this is a big topic, especially for me as it is one I hold very dear to my heart. What I have said above only really begins to scratch at it. I will be looking at it in more detail later in my Unbreakables series – just in case you really really can’t get enough 😛 )