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Category Archives: The Craft of Writing

Some thoughts on the art and craft of writing

Inside Out – The Grumpy Writing Coach

Inside Out – The Grumpy Writing Coach

 
 
 
 
       As writers, we face a problem: We’re not the reader. This may sound obvious, but it has important ramifications. Our reader is, in many ways, unknowable, because we have no idea of who will end up picking up our work. We do know some things, though:
       Their background probably won’t match ours. Their tastes will be different. Their age group and education will be different to an unknown degree. And, there’s a 50-50 chance that their gender will be different, too. In fact, it’s unlikely that we and a given reader have all that much in common.
       Given that, how can we write anything that will be acceptable to all readers? The answer is, we can’t. It is literally impossible to write anything that will be viewed in the same way by all readers.
       So, do we accept the fact that the majority of people who read our work won’t “get it?” Or is there a way to eliminate those differences? Obviously, there is, or I wouldn’t be writing this article. The trick isn’t to make our work universally accepted no matter the reader’s background. It’s to make all readers the same.
       What we need to do is to make our reader become our protagonist. If we can make them see the situation exactly as the protagonist does; if we give each reader the same set of resources the protagonist will use; if all readers have the same desires, needs, and imperatives as our protagonist, then they will decide on what must be done next in exactly the same way as our hero will—and do that before the protagonist makes that decision—if they read and absorb that before they read the protagonist’s response to the situation—they will become our protagonist and react as that character does.
       Do that and you avoid the impossibility of making the writing universal. Instead you’ll make your readers universal. And with that as our goal, let’s see how we can accomplish that.
 
       We’ve always relied on presenting the facts accurately, concisely, and dispassionately because that’s how we were taught to write. And it works well for book reports. But when writing fiction, instead of eliminating differences in viewpoint it encourages them. Everyone has their own interpretation of your presentation, based on what the words mean to them. Tell the reader, for example, that the protagonist is at peace, and each reader will take a slightly different meaning from the statement. To some, being at peace means there is no stress in their life. For others, that there is no war, or argument. In Islam, peace is based on submission and surrender to Allah. And there are hundreds of other shades of meaning to that one word. So expecting a reader to know our viewpoint is impossible unless we focus on that reader, and are able to interact with them, so as to refine our words to fit their background and preconceptions. But, make the reader know why the character feels they are at peace by making that reader view the protagonist’s world as the protagonists does, and the reader’s interpretation of the word no-longer-matters. They will feel as the character feels, emotionally, because for the moment, they will have superimposed the protagonist’s view on their own.
       Can we do this using the writing techniques we all learn in school? Hell no. Our teachers spent zero time discussing the nuance of point of view. They taught us how to write dispassionately, with accuracy of observation the most important item. Why? Because most people will do their writing in a business setting, where accuracy is critical. We were, remember, learning skills to make us useful to employers. Those book reports we wrote were practice for writing business reports. Those essays, practice for writing papers and letters. No one explained how to use tags, how to structure a scene, or even basics such as the three questions a reader needs answered quickly when entering any scene so as to have context to make sense of it it.
       Converting the reader into our protagonist requires skills that are unlike those used for telling a story in person, or creating a story on the stage or screen. Our medium is different, and has different strengths and weaknesses. Instead of stressing fact and accuracy we stress emotional connection. Instead of presenting things from the narrator’s viewpoint we presented from the protagonist’s. Same story, but a very different approach to presenting it. And that means a very different tool set must be used in the presentation.
       Our goal, remember, isn’t to make the reader know about the terror our protagonist may be feeling. Our goal is to terrorize the reader. We don’t want the reader to learn about the plot. We want them to live it. If you can make a reader put down your work for a moment, to decompress, because the emotional situation is so intense they can’t handle it, you have a winner.
       In the end, we having name for doing this: it’s called point of view. And POV is the single most powerful tool in your repertoire. It is the thing that makes all readers the same.
       John W. Campbell, a noted editor once wrote an article in which he presented a hypothetical situation involving an observer and a climber. It went something like this:

     Observer: “Don’t climb that tree. If you knew what I know, that’s not just a tree, it’s being used as a power pole, so there’s dangerous high-voltage up there.”
     Protagonist: “If you knew what I know…that I’m a trained lineman, doing my job with the proper equipment, you wouldn’t worry.”
     Observer: “But if you knew what I know, that your safety gloves are from a shipment that contained defective product, you wouldn’t go.”
     Protagonist: “Ah…but if you knew what I know, that we heard about the defect and have inspected them to remove the bad gloves—and that the gloves I use will be pressure tested just before I put them on, you needn’t worry.”
     Observer: “But if you knew what I know…”

       Point of view is critical. In the example above, were the observer made to know the situation as the protagonist does, confusion would be eliminated and the conversation would never occur.
       Obviously, the protagonist could be wrong. He or she could be missing or misinterpreting data, as could the protagonist in our stories. But that’s okay, because both our protagonist and our reader will have the same misunderstanding and make the same mistakes, which drives our plot. And our reader will be just as surprised, shocked, or perhaps pleased to learn of the misunderstanding.
 
       So how do we do that? How do we gain those necessary skills? How can we turn our narrative around and make our reader view our story from the inside out, as against from the outside in? How do we change our own perspective of how to present a story?
       The answer to that is quite simple. We do that by learning all we can about point of view and the other important skills a writer needs. We add to our existing knowledge, just the way we did, grade-by-grade, as we built our current set of of writing skills. And the more we know, the greater the number of viable choices we have when handling a given situation. The more we know, the better we know what a reader will respond to. And, the more we know the better we get at making our reader feel like our protagonist.
       Simple? Absolutely. Easy? Of course not. If it was easy we’d all be rich and famous. Any profession takes time and practice to perfect. So the question isn’t if it’s easy or hard. The question is, is it worth the effort? And that boils down to: should we continue to write using techniques inappropriate to the task, or should we add professional skills to our toolbox? I don’t think you need my help to answer that question.
       But still, that’s a lot of work, especially given that we won’t know if we have the potential to make effective use of those skills, and to be successful, until we own and apply them. And that’s a big if, especially since most of us are not going to have people lining up to buy our work. So in reality: do we want to be a writer badly enough to to invest lots of time, and perhaps a few dollars to become a writer as a publisher views that term?
       That’s a difficult question to answer, other than to say that if someone can talk you out of writing you aren’t meant to be one. Writers write. It’s what we do. It’s our curse and our blessing.
       Something to keep in mind when making that decision: writing isn’t a destination. It’s a journey, one that lasts a lifetime. And if every day we write with a little more skill than we did on the previous day, and we live long enough…
       So…now that I’ve discouraged you with the news that you probably won’t get rich from your writing this year, let me make a suggestion as to how to begin your transformation from outside-in to inside-out writing.
       A very good article on creating a strong point of view can be found here. It’s based on the work of Dwight Swain, who is notable for having defined many of the techniques that professional writers use, in a clear and concise way. I’d advise you to read the article, think about it, and when it begins to make sense, check the fiction that made you feel as though you were experiencing it, to see how the author made the technique work for that story. And if it seems like something that would help your writing, pick up a copy of Swain’s book, Techniques of the Selling Writer. It both expands on that technique and will show you many others, equally meaningful. Read it slowly, stopping at every point where a new concept is introduced, to think about and practice that point, so as to make it your own rather than to simply learn that it exists.
       And when you finish the book put it aside for six months. Use what you’ve learned, gaining skill and competence. Then, read it again. This time, knowing where he’s going, and better understanding the concepts being introduced, you’ll learn as much the second time as you did the first.
       Will it make you a published author? Naa. That’s your job. What it will do is give you the tools with which to become one, if-it’s-in-you to do that. And that’s the best we can hope for. Maybe it will turn out to be something interesting, but still, success will still elude you. Could be. Happens to most of us. But still, new writers appear all the time. Why shouldn’t it be you? And as they say, you never know till you try.

       Hang in there, and keep on writing.
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Author’s note:
       These articles are not presented with a, “Do this and you’ll be a published author,” attitude. Anyone who tells you they can provide success via a few words on a blog page is scamming you. Instead, they’re one writer’s view of the ideas put forth by the writing teachers I admire and respect. I’ve done the series as part of what’s sometimes called a Benjamin Franklin debt. If some of what I say seems to make sense, I urge you to seek the teachers themselves, people like Dwight Swain, Debra Dixon, and a host of others, and read their advice directly.

 

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A Mirror for the Mind – The Grumpy Writing Coach

A Mirror for the Mind – The Grumpy Writing Coach

Part of a series of articles for the new writer
 
 
 

     One of the unique abilities humans have evolved is to mentally put ourselves in someone else’s place. We have the ability to watch someone doing a physical act and literally feel ourselves duplicating the action. It’s not a matter of saying, “I do this, and then that,” we physically fire off the proper neurons, but at a level that doesn’t produce overt movement. We are, in effect, debugging the procedure before we try it ourselves.
     It’s a handy ability, and allows us to learn quickly. And it’s so complete an ability that if the one we’re mirroring in our mind hurts themself we’ll feel that pain. Unpleasant though it might be, pain teaches us to be careful, and that mirrored pain teaches us what to avoid, just as would having made that mistake ourselves.
     So what does that have to do with writing? Everything. That ability to mirror action and emotion is what gives us the way to literally pull our reader into our stories as a participant. Done right, we can terrify our reader with a horror story, and make them afraid to turn out the lights—in spite of the fact they know it’s only a story. It’s why we weep when something terrible happens to our fictional friend, and feel triumph at the climax of the story.
     All the tools—the techniques we use—have one and only one goal, to evoke that empathetic ability that places our reader on the scene.
     Our hero is locked in combat, his sword weaving a protective shell around him. We could list each thrust and parry and leave it at that. But that won’t evoke the empathetic sense because it’s impersonal. Instead, as the fight goes on, we have our hero think, He’s better than I am.
     The character has that realization, but the reader mutters, “Oh shit now what?”
     Sure, our reader knows the protagonist isn’t going to die. If that happened the story would be over. So the question is, how can we avoid death? And with that realization, those thrusts and parries take on new meaning, because while we know things are going bad for the protagonist we need time. We need to stay alive till something presents itself as a solution. Now we focus on the events, while at the same time thinking over the possibilities—exactly-like-the-protagonist, which means we are the protagonist, and living that fight.
     Let’s assume that the reader thinks they know what stratagem can save our protagonist—will at least allow escape if victory is not possible. Now, in addition to fighting the battle we’re shouting to our avatar, trying to remind them of that solution. And when our hero is nicked on the hand we curse, and feel the pain. Done really well, we can cause the reader to have to stop and recover because it gets too real.
     And if in our brilliance we not only cause the reader to be shouting encouragement and advice, we provide a better solution, one the reader feels they should have thought of, we have a reader who saying, “I really like this book.” And what more can we ask for?
     Facts? Who cares? Facts only inform. But mirroring the action in our mind as we read—living the adventure. That entertains.

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Author’s note:
     These articles are not presented with a, “Do this and you’ll be a published author,” attitude. Anyone who tells you they can provide success via a few words on a blog page is scamming you. Instead, they’re one writer’s view of the ideas put forth by the writing teachers I admire and respect. I’ve done the series as part of what’s sometimes called a Benjamin Franklin debt. If some of what I say seems to make sense, I urge you to seek the teachers themselves, people like Dwight Swain, Debra Dixon, and a host of others, and read their advice directly.
 

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Amazon Just Might Be Screwing You – The Grumpy Writing Coach

Amazon Just Might Be Screwing You – The Grumpy Writing Coach

 
 
 
 

     A large part of Amazon’s business, these days, is with self-publishers. They don’t sell a lot of books per author, but they will usually sell copies to friends, family, and coworkers. And every million self-published writers who moves twenty copies of their book is exactly equal to the one author who sells twenty million copies. There are millions of self-published writers, so that’s a nice source of income. But that being said, Amazon has a way to add to their profit that most writers aren’t aware of.
     Like Smashwords for their electronic book releases, Amazon accepts Microsoft Word files as input for a Kindle release. The only significant difference in the two files is that Smashwords requires an inside picture and a statement that they are publishing it.
     There is one more difference, though, and it’s the one making Amazon all that extra money. Unlike Smashwords, Amazon, if you take their 70% royalties offer, charges $.15 per megabyte transmitted to the customer, so if your file is just a few bytes over 1 meg in size that’s $.30 in addition to their 30% cut of the profit. Sell a million books with that extra $.15 profit and it adds up to $150,000. A nice piece of change.
     That size limit shouldn’t be a problem, because you have to get close to 135k words before you break the one meg file size in a Word file. As an example, an 85k word novel, as a Word .doc document comes in at about .75 meg, and should deliver to the customer for $.15. It should.
     That same novel, with the inside picture included, for Smashwords, weighs in at .77 meg and yields a converted epub file of .619 meg—including that that internal picture. But when Amazon gets their greedy claws on that same file it inflates to a staggering 3.05 meg. That means a $.60 delivery charge. So if you charge $2.95, which many self-pubs do, Amazon gets:
        Their 30% of the profit: $.88
        Their delivery charge: $.60
        Total paid to Amazon: $1.48 which is roughly 50% of the profit.
     That becomes more interesting when you look at most published novels on Amazon, and check their Kindle files. They nearly all have a file size of well under a meg.
     We could assume that the programmers working for Amazon are inept, compared to those at Smashwords, rather than it being a case of Amazon finding a way to chisel a lot of extra profit out of the self-publishers—while claiming to give the author 70% of the price. But it doesn’t matter because there’s a way around it:
  1. Clean up your file and get all the headers, tabs, and other crap out.
  2. Build your table of contents (more on that, below).
  3. Save the file, using Word, as an HTML file. This removes some Microsoft artifacts stored with the file that might get in the way of the conversion—and which might be part of the reason for the bloated Amazon conversion.
  4. Download a copy of Calibre. It’s a free program, though they would like, and deserve, a donation as a thank you.
  5. Reduce your front cover picture to 600 pixels in the long dimension. This will become part of the metadata.
  6. Open Calibre and paste or load that HTML file you created into it.
  7. Highlight your novel and select, Edit Metadata. In the metadata screen that opens, enter your book’s title, the picture you just created, your name, the tags for the novel, and the “sort” data fields: If your title has “The” as its first word, enter the title minus “the” and follow it with the title, a comma, a space, and “The” (or, for novels beginning with “A” it should read something like: Change of Heart, A). Your sort field entry for Author Name, is your last name, followed by a comma, a space, and your first. If you already have the piece published via Kindle, copy the publication date and the ISBN from the existing Kindle page.
  8. Highlight the file and select the Convert Books feature. Be certain that the output file (top right) is listed as MOBI.
  9. At the bottom right press Okay.
     The MOBI file that results is what you send to Amazon in place of your MS Word file, and the final size will be under the 1 meg threshold. And with a $.15 delivery fee and a $2.95 price their share of the profit drops to 34%. And, you make $.40 more per sale.
     As always, though, review the result via Amazon’s reader, and do that before you push the publish button.

° ° °

To build a table of contents for publication, we can’t use Word’s table of contents feature. Instead:
  1. Bookmark each chapter heading. Use a simple name like ch1 for chapter numbers. No spaces in the bookmark name, and don’t bother with capital letters. And while you’re doing that, you might want to center the chapter’s title and make it bold, to set it off. This makes a neater separation on smaller screen readers. Some people go up in size to 13 or 14 point, but that’s personal preference.
  2. Create the table of contents page by setting it off with a manual page break at top and bottom (Typing a Command/Enter on the Mac and Control/Enter on the PC creates a manual page break). Then, as you did with your chapter titles, center the “Table of Contents” title. Again, many also make it 14 point type, bold.
  3. Under the title, type out the chapter numbers and whatever else should be in the TOC, like samples of other books and author notes, using one line per. You can cheat and copy that text as a group from another book and paste it in, to save typing. It will come with the existing hyperlinks, but you’re going to replace that, so it doesn’t matter.
  4. Hyperlink each line in the table to the bookmark for that chapter. Don’t be surprised if, when the hyperlink is added, the paragraph mark at the end of that line vanishes, and must be added back it. It’s another of Word’s charming foibles. When you finish, you can test that the links are proper by hovering over each entry to see that the hyperlink refers to the proper bookmark. You are going to push the button to see it work for yourself, though, both to be certain it works and because it’s fun, which is the reason for the next step.
  5. Push the Add Bookmark button to get you to the bookmark page. While you’re there, find the “Hidden Bookmarks” checkbox and turn it on. If it’s already on, turn it off and back on because there’s a bug in the code and it won’t show bookmarks that have been added since the box was checked unless you turn it off and on again (don’t you just love MS Word? And people wonder why I’m so grumpy). Delete all hidden bookmarks and close the bookmarks window.
  6. You’re ready to go. Just don’t use any hyperlinks now that you’ve cleared the hidden ones or you’ll have to do it again.

 

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What’s in a Name? – The Grumpy Writing Coach

What’s in a Name? – The Grumpy Writing Coach

Part of a series of articles for the new writer
 
 
 

     The other day I reviewed a new writer’s story, all about a man named John. In the course of the first few pages John walked, John saw, John said, John thought… The list was endless and boring. By the end of the second page I wanted to throw John in the john. After three I had all I could stand.
     And people wonder why I’m so grumpy.
     Everyone knows that when we tell a story in first person we used the pronoun “I” to refer to the protagonist. No one has a problem with that. So, why is it that virtually no one understands that the third person equivalent to “I” is “he” or “she,” not John, Betty, Susan, or any other name? Turn to almost any new writer’s work, though, and you’ll find the character’s name sprinkled like salt in virtually every paragraph.
     Here’s the thing: we never think of ourselves by name unless we’re addressing ourselves from a third-party position—lecturing ourselves for some reason. What that means is that every time you, as a writer, use the character’s name in describing their action, that’s a-point-of-view-break. Yes, there are times when it’s necessary to use the name because a reader might become confused over who you’re talking about. But those times are few. And readers won’t forget your character’s name if you don’t use it ten times a page. They really won’t.
     And here’s another thing that needs to be taken into account. If we more often use the other character’s names, while sticking to he or she for the protagonist, that makes the protagonist unique.
     Sure we want to use the protagonist’s name, initially, to introduce them. We also want to use the character’s name at the beginning of scenes or chapters so the reader knows who were talking about. We want to use it in dialogue, where the speaker is placing an emotional emphasis by referring to the character by name. But that’s it. Almost anything else is a POV break, and has the risk of distancing the reader from the action that’s taking place. Make sense? I hope so.
     In addition to that problem there’s the use of the possessive, his or her. That too, is often overused, because the reader already knows who the text is referring to. And when we use the possessive we often add verbosity, along with it, that slows the narrative.
     Look at a few examples:
     “As she hoped, her vision was unchanged.” Is that “her” required? Could we not just as easily say “As she hoped, vision was unchanged.” ? After all, who else’s vision could we be talking about, if the character is alone, or if we already know who’s being referred to?
     And with the line, “She moved her hands to cover her eyes with fingertips” wouldn’t it be smoother to say, “She covered her eyes with fingertips?” Of course. Yet virtually every manuscript I look at is filled with unneeded detail, linked to the possessive, like that.
     Small things kill a reader’s enjoyment, each driving in a tiny splinter of annoyance: Unnecessary references; excessive use of the protagonist’s name; unnecessary description. Each is a minor distraction, but such distractions are additive. So anything you can do to remove the unnecessary and distracting words will both speed the narrative and render the author invisible—placing us in the prompter’s box rather than on stage. And isn’t that were we belong?

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Author’s note:
     These articles are not presented with a, “Do this and you’ll be a published author,” attitude. Anyone who tells you they can provide success via a few words on a blog page is scamming you. Instead, they’re one writer’s view of the ideas put forth by the writing teachers I admire and respect. I’ve done the series as part of what’s sometimes called a Benjamin Franklin debt. If some of what I say seems to make sense, I urge you to seek the teachers themselves, people like Dwight Swain, Debra Dixon, and a host of others, and read their advice directly.
 

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Stories, and Why I Hate Them – The Grumpy Writing Coach

Stories, and Why I Hate Them – The Grumpy Writing Coach

Part of a series of articles for the new writer
 
 
 

     Okay, this is another rant. Why? Because I’m pretty damn tired of reading Stories. And that capital S is there deliberately. I like stories. I just can’t stand Stories.
     Talk to any group of new writers or visit any online writers community and it’s all about Story. Look at the posted work on those communities and it’s always the same. They’re all focused on telling their Story. And that’s it. That’s the whole and only purpose of the writing, to make the reader know the Story. Except that it’s not. Writing fiction is about entertainment—interesting, satisfying, and time filling entertainment.
     Flush the idea that readers come to us for Story. Burn it. Shred it. Feed it to the hogs. Just get rid of it, because readers don’t give a damn about Story until they close the book, lean back, and say, “That was a _______ story.” (Fill in good/great/lousy/etc. as appropriate)
     Until they do that, all that matters is the writing. Think about it. I can take any situation, hand it to virtually any competent writer and say, “Write me a page about ___,” and be certain I’ll get a page that will entice the reader to continue to the bottom and then turn to the next page. It can be about a physical battle, a romantic tryst, or taking out the damn garbage. It doesn’t matter, because that skilled writer can entice you through their ability to make the scene both real and interesting to read, through their presentation skills, their command of point of view, and through their knowledge of what it takes to please a reader. That’s what sets the professional writer apart from all the wannabees. It’s not having great plot ideas. It’s not luck or “natural talent,” It’s knowing how to write for the selected medium. It’s knowing the little tricks of how to to hold a reader’s interest.
     And if you have that ability. If you can can entice your customer to read from top to bottom of the page because they want to, and do for three hundred fifty pages in a row, you’ve written something the reader will enjoy, and recommend to friends. And isn’t the entire purpose of buying fiction to find reading enjoyment on every page, from top to bottom? I don’t know about anyone else, but I sure don’t buy fiction and plow through a history lesson on the life of a fictional character just so I can find an interesting twist on page three twenty-five. That twist is a plus, not the reason I’m still reading well past bedtime. I’m doing that because of the writing.
     If your plot isn’t all that great a reader might say it wasn’t much of a story, true, but they will call it a satisfying read. And that’s what writing is all about. So give your customer a readable page, paragraph, sentence. Choose your words to entice. Think about making every single reading moment compelling, or at least more interesting than whatever a given reader might do where they not reading your book. Just, for God’s sake don’t focus on Story, because that’s history, and history is boring.
     Why? Because history is a chronicle, not a story. It’s a collection of facts, and we usually read facts to be informed, not entertained. They’re devoid of emotion because they’re about completed, and immutable events, not those events as they unfold. And I’m not talking about the use of past tense in presenting the story, I’m talking about being in the character’s moment of now, no matter the tense the writer elects to use in the telling.
     When we read history we’re not sharing the adventure and we have no emotional investment. We’re learning. We won’t worry if some action or plan of the protagonist will work because it’s already happened and we’re only being told the sequence in which it happened. But worry is something readers feed on. It’s worry that causes them to care, and it’s the trick we use, as writers, to hook our reader. If you can make a reader worry they care about the character’s future.
     Worry makes a reader speculate on what the protagonist should do, and what they, themself, would do, were they living the scene. And since the character is just as uncertain as we are, we form an emotional bond with that character because we have something in common, without realizing why, or even that we do. We only know that we want to know what will happen next. And if the writer is skilled enough to make it seem that the story is progressing in real-time (and we certainly should be) we will feel exactly the same sense of urgency the character does.
     But…if we tell the story as a chronicle of events, there can be no sense of urgency because it feels like a report, not something going on around us. And why does that matter? Because a report can be put aside. Great writing can’t.

 

Words and Music – The Grumpy Writing Coach

Words and Music – The Grumpy Writing Coach

Part of a series of articles for the new writer
 

Words and Music

     Music has the power to move us in ways that border the astonishing. With just a few notes it can change our mood in ways dramatic. A fanfare can make us smile, while a musical joke may bring a chuckle. Music can invoke the power of the raging sea or transport us to the tranquil moments leading to sleep. And it can do that all without words.
     Couple speech to that power and the possibilities are limitless. That combination of lyric and melody can inspire us to love, patriotism, and even despair. We whistle a happy song when we pass a graveyard, and celebrate the anniversary of our birth with a little ditty. It permeates our lives. Words bring the thought and music the emotion. Together they can accomplish miracles.
     So how, you ask, does that relate to writing fiction? That’s easy. Most of us have a voice, our instrument, that’s less than impressive. There are few, a very few, who were born with an intuition of song that makes them a natural fit to some aspect of music. The rest of us, should we pursue a singing career, must develop those skills through practice and study. And because the instrument we’re given as a birthright does not usually embody perfection, most of the most successful popular singers make do with something less than that. Even Ella Fitzgerald, the first lady of jazz, and someone blessed with a voice that only a precious few possess, had to be guided into the best use of her talents. And so it is with writing.
     The problem is that as we grow through our teen years we learn to present the emotional part of our stories through the physical techniques that are also useful when performing music. As we present the facts of the story with our words, we present the melody—the emotional aspect—though sweeping hand gestures, changing expression, intonation, modulation, body-language, hesitation, and the many tricks of delivery in the storyteller’s bag of tricks. We stop and shake our heads as if in sorrow, and our audience is given important emotional information. We lean toward the audience and speak softly, and they know we’re about to relate a secret.
     But then we turn to recording our stories in print. We can record the words, yes, but what about the music? What happens to the melody played by that marvelously expressive instrument, the human voice? Where is that interpretive dance we do to tell our audience, visually, the things they absolutely need to know if they’re to understand the character’s motivation?
     Gone. All gone.
     On the page lie our words, the lyrics of our song, lifeless, devoid of all emotion.
     And the reader, the one we’ve appointed to sing our song? What of them?
     Hand me the song lyrics to, Somewhere Over the Rainbow, and the melody begins to play on the iPod of my mind before my eyes read more then the title. That’s true for almost any song we already know. But what about the song we don’t know? We’re handed the lyrics and told to sing to ourselves. But how can we do that? We don’t know what a line we’re about to sing says, factually or emotionally, until after we read it.
     How do we solve that problem when we give someone our brand new song? If we’re with them we sing it. If not, we may hand them a recording. But if neither are available? We supply the musical notation and the lyrics, the sheet music. The singer now has both, the words and music, the facts and the emotion. And in writing we have exactly the same situation. We need to present the reader with the facts of the story, while, at the same time, making them feel the emotion the character does.
     Over time, writers have developed the tricks of presentation that will give our reader what’s necessary to know our story as we do, from the inside, so to speak. Properly presented, we can make the audience feel is if time is passing, and can motivate the reader to speak the dialog as we would—as the actual character would. We can pass them the emotional part of the story by making them experience it, not just hear about it. It’s one thing to tell the reader that Sam was glad to see Ella when she enters the room, but quite another to make the reader say, “Damn, I’m glad she’s back. I like Ella.”
     The thing to remember: you’re not telling your reader a story. Your reader is a musical instrument—your musical instrument. They are both amazingly powerful and flexible, and certainly worth learning how to play. So don’t tell them a story. Take the time to learn to make them live it.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Author’s note:
     These articles are not presented with a, “Do this and you’ll be a published author,” attitude. Anyone who tells you they can provide success via a few words on a blog page is scamming you. Instead, they’re one writer’s view of the ideas put forth by the writing teachers I admire and respect. I’ve done the series as part of what’s sometimes called a Benjamin Franklin debt. If some of what I say seems to make sense, I urge you to seek the teachers themselves, people like Dwight Swain, Debra Dixon, and a host of others, and read their advice directly.
 

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Show and Tell – The Grumpy Writing Coach

Show and Tell – The Grumpy Writing Coach

Part of a series of articles for the new writer
 
 

Show and Tell


 

     Hello, it’s me, the grumpy old writing coach. Today I thought I might crush a cherished belief or two. One I particularly like says that you need to show everything your character senses. That, you’ll be told, will keep you off the stage and place the reader inside the character’s head.
     Will it? Sure. Just like sitting inside a robot. You’ll be watching the world through view-screens and reading status reports from the other senses: “S/he saw… s/he smelled… s/he felt…” And how much like the character will that make you feel?
     But suppose you could be a phantom presence, instead, standing right where the character is, seeing for yourself everything the character sees—as the character perceives it—knowing everything the character knows, thinks and wants, yet still able to be yourself and make your own evaluation of the situation? And suppose that’s happening in a way that gives the feeling that time is passing? Suddenly you’re not only able to be the character, you can do better, and advise the character on what to do next. True, they’re not going to listen. They never do. But that doesn’t matter, any more then it did when you shouted advice at the TV screen last week when you thought no one was listening. In fact, if you handle it well enough, as the writer, when the reader gives that advice it will be exactly what the character wants to do, giving the reader the feeling that their advice is being acted on.
     Cherished belief number two: Tell the reader everything the character sees, senses, smells, touches, and hears, and the reader will become the character.
     But they don’t. You can’t really become the people in the book you’re reading. You can only become a character, yourself. But isn’t that what we really want to be? You don’t want to be agent James Bond, you want his job and his life for yourself.
     So what does that mean? It means you don’t tell the reader what your character sees, you tell what, of all the things they’re sensing in that instant, they will pay attention to next. Little change. Big difference.
     Then, as a reader, you experience what the character does—from the character’s perspective in time and space—and do that before the character does, so you can begin making your own decision as to the importance of events and how to respond to them. The character, and his or her reaction, will be the yardstick by which you measure your own. As a participant you’re doing something that can’t happen when you’re in that robot’s control room: You begin to create alternate, and possible solutions to the problems being posed, just as you do in your own life. Now and then you may even stop, close your eyes and daydream how the scene would go if you were living it and in control of the situation. If you can make a reader do that they’re participants, not readers. And if you do it just right they won’t have time to stop and daydream because they’re too busy experiencing the story.
     One final cherished belief to demolish today: There is no tooth fairy. Sorry.
 
So now on to grading your homework assignment.
     A while ago I asked you to look through your own writing and see that every single action was motivated by some stimulis. For those of you whose dog ate the homework. I’ll give you a minute to recheck.
     Here’s why it matters. Would you buy a story that said:

*

     A Tanager winged just above John’s head, quick and bright. Yapping and the sound of small paws hurrying in his direction pulled his eyes left. An eddy in the wind brought a trace of woodsmoke, and with it memories of softer times.

*

     It’s a series of physical world happenings unreferenced to any human reaction other than to look, and then pay no attention. It’s motivation with no reaction. It’s reporting. Lots of people trying to be writers do exactly that.
     So let’s turn that around and show reaction with no motivation. Does it work any better?

*

     Spring at last, his heart said, as he turned his steps toward the park. Maybe the last spring. Maybe one too many. A small dog, Yorkie, he guessed, was dancing in welcome, saying “Play with me,” with his shrill little barks. Painfully he bent to pet the small head. Would that I could, small friend. Straightening from the dog he closed his eyes and breathed deeply of yesterday, when the little park knew him so much better. A time when she was there to take his hand.

*

     This, by the way, is also typical of what we see from the new writer. So what’s wrong? We don’t know why he thinks it’s spring. The dog comes toward him but as far as we know he didn’t see or hear it before it’s reported in motion at his feet. And he thinks of days past, but why? Because of the dog? A flower? The season? No, he just does it because it’s pretty, and poetic. A reader would understand, but not be drawn in because they participated not at all.
     Of course you’ve guessed where I’m going with this, because in your life everything you do or think has its basis in some motivating event. You sense, and in response you react on a gut level. You then internalize the event, you think about it, and finally you take action. It may take an instant, or it could take an hour to complete.
     That next motivating act might be the result of your last reaction—a response to your heaving a brick into the wet cement, perhaps. It might be pang of hunger that pulls you away from what you’re doing. It can be anything, but in unbroken chain, cause and effect march through your life, as it must through the lives of every character in your story. And that’s the true difference between show and tell.

*

     A Tanager winged just above John’s head, quick and bright. Spring at last, his heart said, as he turned his steps toward the park. Maybe the last spring. Maybe one too many.
     Yapping and the sound of small paws hurrying in his direction pulled his eyes left. A small dog, Yorkie, he guessed, was dancing in welcome, saying “Play with me,” with his shrill little barks. Painfully he bent to pet the small head. Would that I could, small friend.
     An eddy in the wind brought a trace of woodsmoke, and with it memories of softer times. Straightening from the dog he closed his eyes and breathed deeply of yesterday, when the little park knew him so much better. A time when she was there to take his hand.

*

     In completion there is beauty

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Author’s note:
     These articles are not presented with a, “Do this and you’ll be a published author,” attitude. Anyone who tells you they can provide success via a few words on a blog page is scamming you. Instead, they’re one writer’s view of the ideas put forth by the writing teachers I admire and respect. I’ve done the series as part of what’s sometimes called a Benjamin Franklin debt. If some of what I say seems to make sense, I urge you to seek the teachers themselves, people like Dwight Swain, Debra Dixon, and a host of others, and read their advice directly.

 
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Posted by on October 2, 2011 in The Grumpy Old Writing Coach

 

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