This week’s WriteTip is a bit of a departure from usual form. No craft tips or lists. Just a passionate statement about something many writers often fail to do: keep up with reading.
It happens to all of us as we become writers—we get so involved in writing and craft and everything surrounding it (promotion, social media, etc.) that we slowly see our reading time disappearing or eroding to almost nil. And soon, there just isn’t time to read. Or so we tell ourselves. But it’s a lie, a big lie, and it is a dire one.
I once fell into this trap, and I can tell ya, my happiness suffered, but more importantly, my writing suffered. When I started reading again, my writing productivity and satisfaction with the results climbed. I now regularly read two novels a week, and still write an average of 1800 words a day when on project (there are breaks for edits, polishing, and so forth from time to time). And I am so glad I rediscovered the joy of reading.
For me, the challenge came from reading too many books in the same genres or sub genres. When I started writing science fiction and fantasy in 2009, for example, I had not been regularly reading in those genres as I had during childhood, so I found myself out of touch and behind and wanted to catch up and get a sense of the field. Because I enjoy such things, soon I was devouring everything I could find in those sub genres, and because when I write, reading in the genre I am writing is helpful, it was fine. I am not one of those writers who is prone to copying plot and characters from what I am reading, so my stories were not negatively effected by reading in the same genre I write. Instead, I was inspired and reading helped me create the feel I wanted. When I wrote my Saga of Davi Rhii books, I wanted them to feel like Star Wars: A New Hope, so I rewatched the original trilogy and reread the Zahn tie-ins and mission accomplished. I realize not every writer can do this, but I can, absorbing a feel and elements that I incorporate into my own voice and style to enhance my book. If you can’t do that, I am sorry. I really am, so you may have to try a different approach, but this works great for me.
But after about 8 years of nonstop science fiction and fantasy with rare breaks to read anything else, I started to burn out. Not only did my ideas dry up, but my enthusiasm waned greatly, and so I found myself slugging through books and reading half the usual number if that. Deciding that perhaps it was time for a break, I started reading other genres, with particular focus on procedural thrillers—which I have always loved on TV but had not read much—and boom, I was off and running again. The best part of reading outside my genre was I didn’t find myself interrupting my reading constantly with subconscious literary analysis or craft breakdowns. Instead, I could just enjoy the reads. Now that I write thrillers, I let myself entertain such thoughts a bit more but I have disciplined my mind so it usually occurs when I am not reading so as to avoid spoiling the experience.
An additional benefit is that I have learned new vocabulary and turns of phrase I can then incorporate into my own arsenal to enhance and expand my voice. We sometimes forget our limits. And it is good to see how other writers use words in masterful and interesting ways to remind us, even show us, how we might use them better and more interestingly moving forward. In the process, we can gain not only useful insights but words and phrases that expand our palate and reinforce our craft.
To me, reading is one of life’s joys, and by losing it, I lost something important. After all, reading is what made me want to write and helped me decide what stories I wanted to tell. Now, I read a variety of genres and some nonfiction (not always research related though often it is with a few writing books thrown in), and I really find I write better, I feel better, and I am more creative as a result.
So this week’s write tip is a bit of a departure from the usual craft how tos, but I just wanted to encourage and remind my readers that reading is still important and probably an activity that was a large part of why you write, so please don’t let yourself lose touch with that experience. Finding time for it will be one of the best gifts you give yourself all year.
The following is an excerpt from my book How To Write a Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction Chapter 13: Editing & Rewriting. It is part 2 of a multi-part series. For Part 1, click here. For part 2, click here.
Characters, Plot, and Theme
The order in which you review various aspects of craft as you revise is up to you but the one thing this phase has that the writing did not is the advantage of seeing the book as a whole and examining how and if the various parts work well together. In On Writing, Stephen King writes: “Every book—at least one worth reading—is about something. Your job during or after your first draft is to decide what something or somethings yours is about. Your job in the second draft—one of them anyway—is to make that something even more clear. This may necessitate some big changes and revisions. The benefits to you and your reader will be clearer focus and a more unified story.” Things emerge as you write, such as themes which may not have been obvious from the beginning. So now you have the chance to go back through, examine them, and make sure all the elements support and expand the theme in ways that bring out the nuances and add depth.
I generally start with story and structure. So I look at my opening and I ask questions about it as I do.
Does my story really begin here? Or did I start in the wrong place?
Is the opening the right pacing and length or did I draw it out too much? Too much description? Too little dialogue and character? Too little emotion?
Are the story questions clear?
Is the length of the opening proportional to the rest of the story or is it too elaborate? Too involved?
Is my opening interesting? Is it compelling?
Does my opening have enough action?
Is my opening too flashy such that it effects continuity or does it flow well into what follows?
Is everything clear so readers know who is talking, where they are, and what’s happening?
After the opening, I start reviewing my plots and subplots and looking at their scene structure, flow, and arcs. I look at the action and conflict. Is something happening or is it static? Does every scene take us somewhere further in plot or character or both? Are the stakes clear? Is what my characters want clear? Will readers care? Do the setups lead to payoffs? Are all the questions being answered? Are they being answered at the right time—the best time to aid tension, pace, and comprehension? Is the information I am giving enough to reveal the story to readers as I see it or did I assume things I failed to impart clearly? How can I make it clearer?
Next, I look at Point of View. Is it consistent—no head hopping? Is the chronology clear and understandable? Am I shifting at the right points or should I rethink? What about too many shifts or too few? Is the tone consistent? Is the character with the most at stake always the point of view character for each scene?
I look at pacing, description and setting. Does the story start fast enough or does it drag? Are individual scenes dramatic and do they start and end at the right spot to keep the tension consistent throughout or do they peter off? Does the payoff at the end of each scene and chapter justify the build up? Did I balance showing and telling? Do I describe too much or too little? What details are missing that might be important? Does each setting add to the tension and tone of the scene in a way that makes it stronger or does it fall flat or detract? Does each scene leave readers feeling something important has happened? Do I use all five senses at least once every other page, if not more? Where can I add more visceral descriptive cues?
If any place bogs down, I look for places to trim the fat and tighten, not only for pacing and tension but also clarity. Too much information can overload readers, while too little can leave them confused. The trick is to find the right balance. Does each section function properly in the story or does anything need to be cut or moved to make the story flow better and stronger overall? This requires some cold efficiency and killing your darlings but the book will always be better for it, every time, and making your book the best it can be is essential. There is no room here for favorite scenes and characters that ultimately serve no purpose but author egos. “I liked writing that” is not enough justification to leave it in. Save it and try and use it in another book or story. Everything that stays here must absolutely belong and add something important or it has to go. Now is the time to reorganize scenes and details. If you reveal too much or too little, reveal it in the wrong order, or omitted important things, this is the time to find and fix it.
Next, I look at characters. Is each major character complete? Are they original or too much of a stereotype? Are they consistent or wishy washy? Are they distinctive or can they be confused with another character? Can anything be added to keep them distinctive? Examine diction and consistency of dialogue and tone—is the character being true to themselves in every word and action they take? Is it believable? What does this character want? What does this character fear? What do they overcome? Does the character grow and change? How? If not, what can be done to fix that. Does each character serve a function in the story or can they be combined or even cut? As editor, I once made a writer cut an entire character and give all her business to another character because she was a minor character who served no real purpose, whereas one of the major characters needed more agency, and so combining them was the best solution. The writer still complains about it to this day, even though she admits it was the best thing for her book. She was later able to go back in and make that character better and more essential to the next book so she could bring her into the story. Ultimately, only keep characters who matter to the outcome of the story. The rest have to go.
I often do a special pass just for dialogue because dialogue is so important. In this, I not only look at character’s diction but the pacing and conciseness of dialogue. I probably trim dialogue and description the most of any parts of any draft. Too much dialogue, too drawn out, not enough action—any of this can be a scene killer and has to go. How can you make the dialogue more dramatic and better paced and less wordy? How can you make even exposition passages feel like they move with action, instead of dragging like info dumps? The trick is to make exposition feel organic and necessary every time by keeping it concise and short. Simple is actually better than complex. Less really is more. Read aloud. Try it out. Do you stumble anywhere? Is it smooth and natural or does it need refining? Are the characters distinctive from each other? Is it clear who is speaking in each case? Characters should sound like individuals, not clones. Listen hard to them and make sure each character has some unique nuanced turns of phrase or styles. Maybe some speak in complete sentences while others talk in spurts and fragments. Some may discuss things directly while others beat around, especially when it comes to emotions. Whatever the case, all dialogue is transactional in nature: it is about an exchange of something useful between two parties, so make sure something happens in every exchange. Is the dialogue accompanied by appropriate actions and descriptive modifiers to show frame of mind, mood, etc.? Most of all, do they all sound like real people?
Ken Rand writes in The Ten Percent Solution: “We don’t just see words when we read. We use other senses. We make mistakes because sometimes the senses we’re using right now to read copy maybe dulled, distracted, or otherwise not functioning to capacity. The solution is to employ different senses in a systematic manner during the editing phase, to catch on the next pass errors that escaped the last pass.” Reading aloud not only employs your ears but your tongue, your eyes, and your mind and heart in ways different from just reading silently. You will hear the way things sound, rather than imagining it. You will hear repetition clearly, for example, because you ears picking it up even as your lips read it time and again makes it really pop out. Hearing how the pacing and flow aid the emotional effect of the prose is also invaluable. It is the best way to give you insight into the reader experience you are offering in time to make fixes. You will hear things that sounded complete in your head but are not—not clear, not complete, not as intended. You will notice sentences that seem to run on or end abruptly. Places where transitions between sentences, paragraphs, or chapters seem awkward or abrupt. And places where characters are speaking but it is unclear who is who. These and such more are things you don’t want to overlook, and reading aloud is a great tool to help you find them.
Let’s take a look at a passage now and see what it looks like between first and second draft.
After a day or two, I went back through the passage and did some tweaking. Here’s what it looks like after the polish draft.
You can compare the two and see how I went over the diction and conciseness of voice to tighten or add details as needed to make it richer and clearer, but also improve the pace at the same time. My goal was to write in a voice that implies a certain Midwest country accent without using any dialect or other tricks. I wanted the voice itself to just slip the accent into reader’s minds, but I also want it to be humorous, while still being realistic, gritty while still being believable. This is an example of how you might revise a passage.
Words On The Page
There a few concerns good writers learn to concern themselves with that beginners often leave to their editors or copyeditors. These are things that concern the way words look on the page. Ken Rand writes: “The very shape of letters has a lot to do with whether a reader enjoys or even comprehends the words.” This why choosing fonts is so very important, but additionally, if you have a paragraph with sentences using similar words that appear near each other (in the line above atop or the line below right under) each other, this can confuse readers or cause them to get lost as well. You’ll also want to look for “widows”—solitary words at the end of paragraphs that hang over solo onto the next line. Typesetters and editors will remove these. Your best bet to be sure it’s done the way you want is to find them yourself and see if adding or rearranging words in a sentence can help eliminate them before they ever get there.
I also mentioned earlier in the book that pace and flow of the reading experience come from how pages appear. Too many long descriptive passages with no blank space to breath can make reading difficult and make a book seem slow. Editors and Typesetters may want to break these up just for that purpose. It is in your best interest to make breaks yourself to avoid that, so you wind up with the book exactly as you intended. Looking for this will also aid your search for exposition info dumps and overly long description which you might take out parts of to insert at less busy spots later or just save for another book. Flip through a bound book and notice how the varied flow of pages is pleasing to the eyes as you scan or read, and you’ll get the idea of the subconsciously psychology involved here. It takes time to learn this well, but it is a very worthwhile skill for any author to learn, and allows you to influence parts of the process that tend to move on without you if you don’t know about them. After all, it is your book. You are the one who has to live with it. Wasted time and frustration arguing about recombining paragraphs and other details during editing is something that benefits no one, so the more work you do before then, the better your experience will be.
Knowing When to Stop
Everything we’ve covered so far in this chapter is aimed at one goal: helping you make your manuscript stronger and more professionally polished before passing it on to your editor and publisher. The last tip I want to offer is the answer to a commonly asked question: How do I know when to stop editing?
The best way to know is when you start noticing yourself putting back things you already removed, it’s time to consider stopping and handing it over to someone else. Don’t get stuck in the cycle of endless revision so that you never finish. At some point, you can only make each book as good as you are as a writer at that particular moment. Over time, each book will get better and better, but you do need to learn your limits. And no book will ever be perfect. I usually finish revisions and set the book aside for a day or two before doing another read through aloud. That gives me a break long enough to rest my eyes and brain and come back ready to hear it fresh again and make any final notes as I go through.
When I’ve reached a point that I know it is the best I can make it, then I send it to my agent or editor for the next stage: the editorial process.
For more tips, come back next Wednesday. For previous WriteTips, click here.
Bryan Thomas Schmidt is a national bestselling author/editor and Hugo-nominee who’s edited over a dozen anthologies and hundreds of novels, including the international phenomenon The Martian by Andy Weir and books by Alan Dean Foster, Frank Herbert, Mike Resnick, Angie Fox, and Tracy Hickman as well as official entries in The X-Files, Predator, Joe Ledger, Monster Hunter International, and Decipher’s Wars. His debut novel, The Worker Prince, earned honorable mention on Barnes and Noble’s Year’s Best Science Fiction. His adult and children’s fiction and nonfiction books have been published by publishers such as St. Martins Press, Baen Books, Titan Books, IDW, and more. Find him online at his website bryanthomasschmidt.net or Twitter and Facebook as BryanThomasS.
To download How To Write A Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction free one book, click here.
As writers, we all know that life goes on. And sometimes that means great times of stress and difficulty that challenge our muses and creative drives. Nothing is as stressful as a pandemic. So what do you do when you need to write but just don’t feel like it? Or when your daily life is suddenly filled with new distractions and demands from children stuck home, spouses always around, and so on? Or just when your thoughts are so filled with worries and other concerns that it’s hard to focus?
Here are a few ideas:
1) Aim Small. Whatever your usual expectations, circumstances are different. Don’t be too hard on yourself if you struggle for words and your word count suffers. In times like these, 300 good words or 500 are better than none at all. Give yourself a break and celebrate any success. When you surprise yourself and write abundantly, enjoy and celebrate. It’s an accomplishment as always, especially on top of stressful daily concerns.
2. Write What You Feel. Sometimes the distractions make it hard to focus on a work in progress or keep the current story focused in our mind as we write. In such times, it can be helpful to vent some of what clogs our heard—and for most writers, that means writing it out. Don’t be afraid to journal, if you don’t do it normally, and write out what you’re experiencing and feeling. Open a scratch file and go wild. You may find it clears your head and heart enough that you can get back to work.
3. Write Something New. Sometimes with a change in mood or stress, a change of scenery or story will be just the trick to keep us going. If you find yourself flummoxed on your current project, perhaps trying something new will help you not only stay productive but stay sane. Feeling successful and accomplishing your goals is sometimes more important than being stuck on one project at a time, so give yourself leeway to try something more in tune with your mood or focus—some idea you have been wanting to write that maybe has spent more time in your thoughts of late than that WIP. And feel good at what you accomplish.
4. Outline. I get it. You’re a discovery writer and you like to let the story lead your organically. Refining can come in the rewrites. But sometimes, when life is unstable and distracting, it helps to set a path you can follow, and outlines provide exactly that. It doesn’t have to be in depth. It can be as detailed or scarce as you want. Just a few lines or pages. But outlining the next scene or chapter can boost your confidence and give you the focus you need to work through the stress and distractions.
5. Just Let It Flow. Sometimes outliners get distracted too and they struggle to write because the outline just isn’t coming together. Don’t be afraid to write the scene and see where it goes. You don’t even have to write the next scene chronologically in the story. You can skip to some other scene you have a clear vision for and write that, then fill in what comes before later. In times like these, it’s productivity that matters, not form.
6. Writing Is Work—Treat It Like A Job. Some of us write for a hobby. others for a job. And some write full time, while others write when they can. Regardless, the surest way to stay on task is to treat your writing like a second job (or first). That means setting time and a dedicated writing location and protecting them to keep them available when and how you need them. Whatever makes you most productive. Whether you need quiet isolation or the outdoors, a notepad, laptop, desktop, or iPad. Setting up a space, however large or small, and blocking out a time to write is especially important in times when everything and everyone else is constantly clamoring for your attention. So treat it like a job and be professional.
7. Goals Are Good. As much as giving yourself a break is necessary during times of crisis, sometimes pushing yourself can be the best plan. Don’t be afraid to set word goals, even if they vary from your usual output, and force yourself to write to them. If you never set word goals, like me, then now may be the time to try. Having to meet a goal is a great motivation to push you onward. And don’t worry, even if some of the words wind up being useless or cut, it’s writing them that counts.
8. Write With A Friend. Okay, social distancing makes it hard, but turning on Facetime or Skype may be useful as a way to have encouragement, even accountability when you’re struggling to write. For me, there’s nothing like being in a room of people busy writing to push me to do the same. Even if it’s just you and a friend, a writing buddy can be a great support to help you keep going through stress.
9. Change Your Routine. Even at the best of times, it’s possible to get stuck in a rut, but during times of stress and crises, that can be all the more true. So sometimes you need to shake things up, break out of the normal routine and patterns, and try something new. From writing in a new location or at a different time of day to switching stories to outlining instead of pantsing, to changing music, any number of things to shake up your routine might be just the change you need to find inspiration or shake the doldrums and get some words pouring out. Don’t be afraid to experiment.
10. Use Prompts. Some people love writing prompts, some hate them. Others just don’t need them at all. But sometimes writing to prompts can be really helpful. Prompts can be everything from a short concept to a photograph or painting, a list of key words, or even a line of dialogue or description. Whatever works for you and “prompts” you onward is fine. Sometimes just a little inspiration goes a long way.
So there you have it, ten ideas on how to keep writing even through a pandemic or crisis. What works for you? What tips can you offer to help others like yourselves? We’d love to hear from you in comments.
For more writing tips like this post, check out my book How To Write a Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction. You can find it on Amazon here or download it here.
Okay, this post will make Patrick Hester very happy. Why? Patrick loves Scrivener. He might as well be a spokesperson, seriously! But for writers, this post should also make you happy, especially if you’re a pantser like me. In case anyone doesn’t know the terms, pantsers are those of us who, rather than outlining, prefer to discover the story as we write. We may make a few notes about plot twists, characters, scenes, etc., but mostly we write unstructured. It allows us to experience the story in the same way a reader or POV character might. For strict outliners, it sounds like craziness, living on the edge. Might as well jump off a cliff. But for pantsers, it’s liberating.
Regardless, Literature and Latte’s Scrivener is certainly a popular writing program. It’s also a lot more affordable than most these days. Developed by writers, for writers, it used to be available only for MAC but now there’s a PC version as well. And priced at just $40 US for the full version, it’s a bargain. What is Scrivener?
Scrivener is a word processing program designed specifically for writing prose. You create folders and text pages within them, allowing each chapter and scene to be separate. Or, you can just create one big folder and write it all there. Since the program was designed to be used breaking things up, that’s the method I’d recommend, but I don’t want to scare off those who bristle at the idea. Why do I recommend that? What are its advantages?
Well, the advantages of it are some of the very things that make Scrivener advantageous for pantsers.
1) You can move scenes within and outside of chapters with just a mouse click and drag. Ever write something and realize it’s in the wrong place? Every write something and decide later it doesn’t quite work but feel loathe to throw it out? No more creating new holding documents or saving scenes to clog up your folders. Instead, you can move it around. Switch the order of scenes within a chapter. Move a scene to another chapter. Move a scene to a holding folder for use later when relevant. All can be done in a matter of seconds with Scrivener. Use either the menu bar to the left edge of the screen and drag and drop or use the corkboard and just click and drag things around.
2) Formatting is a snap. You just type your words and let Scrivener do the rest. It can even convert italics to underlining, emdashes to double dashes, and more. It adds headers, page numbers, chapter headings, all fairly seemlessly, saving you a lot of work. And with the templates included you can format it not just standard manuscript format but as paperbacks and other options, even save to PDF.
3) Exporting To Word is easy. .RTF or .DOC export is simple. I use it daily to back up my work, but, technically, you don’t have to export until you’re done and ready to send it off. Use those handy formatting features I just mentioned to format the document per guidelines of a specific editor, agent or market. Conversion is fast and you can then make any adjustments to the Word document that are necessary (usually only a few). Once you learn how to use it, the adjusting will not be very involved. You can also set up a title page including word count (which the program counts automatically), your contact info and agent, etc.
4) Notes Within The Project. You can keep notes within the project itself. Scrivener’s default projects include folders for character notes, place notes, and research in addition to your manuscript. And the trash saves anything you drag and drop there until you tell it to delete. All stored in a project folder that’s easy to back up. And none of the extra stuff converts to word unless you tell it to.
5) Synopsis & Outlining Ease. Using the synopsis and outline features, Scrivener can save a tone of time. Wait! We’re pantsers! Yeah, I know, but if you sell that manuscript or get an agent, you’re going to need a synopsis and probably an outline. Editors often ask for these, especially for second books. These resources allow you to more easily cull data from your project into outlines and synopses in a much more rapid fashion. I don’t know about you, but anything that makes those things easier for me is awesome in my book.
6) Finding scenes or chapters for review is a snap. Need to reference a previous scene? Just scan the corkboard or left side menu, click and you’re there, boom! And you can go back to the scene you’re working on just as fast. No need to use Find searches for a phrase or flip back and forth or print one so you can have it handy. No need even for two monitors so both can be open or a split screen. Scrivener makes that easy.
Here’s another advantage. Literature and Latte is so confident in their project, they let you download a full version for a one month trial FREE. Yep. Try it out first. If you don’t like it, convert the project into Word and you can continue working there. It’s really a great way to try out something new. And they know that if you take the time to learn and use it effectively, you’ll probably wind up just buying it and continuing to use it. I know I did.
Believe, I know how hard it can be to change, how set we writers get in our routines i.e. what works for us. I also know how little time we have or want to spend learning new software or changing all that, but what if it could save you time and frustration in the long run, leaving you more time to write?
Whatever the case, I find Scrivener to be incredible freeing in a number of ways. All of the above have saved me time and stress. And as the program continues to improve and I continue to explore it, I’m sure it will only get better. Others of you who use Scrivener, what are advantages you’ve found? I’d love to hear them in comments. For what it’s worth…
Bryan Thomas Schmidt is an author and editor of adult and children’s speculative fiction. His debut novel, The Worker Prince(2011) received Honorable Mention on Barnes & Noble Book Club’s Year’s Best Science Fiction Releases for 2011. A sequel The Returning followed in 2012 and The Exodus will appear in 2013, completing the space opera Saga Of Davi Rhii. His first children’s books, 102 More Hilarious Dinosaur Books For Kids (ebook only) and Abraham Lincoln: Dinosaur Hunter- Land Of Legends (forthcoming) appeared from Delabarre Publishing in 2012. His short stories have appeared in magazines, anthologies and online. He edited the anthology Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 (2012) and is working on Beyond The Sun for Fairwood Press, headlined by Robert Silverberg, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Mike Resnick and Nancy Kress, a Ray Gun Revival Best Of Collection for Every Day Publishing and World Encounters and Space & Shadows: SpecNoir with coeditor John Helfers, all forthcoming. He hosts #sffwrtcht (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writer’s Chat) Wednesdays at 9 pm ET on Twitter and is an affiliate member of the SFWA.
I dislike the “show v. tell” term because it’s often bandied about with no further explanation. For the longest time, this flummoxed me. Where was I telling? How could I show? But as an editor, I’ve gotten a better understanding, coming across situations where just a few word changes would make a world of difference.
For example, which feels more immediate and in the moment:
I heard a bowstring twang just as Roger crashed into me.
A bowstring twanged as Roger crashed into me.
Any time you use “I saw,” “I thought,” “I felt” etc. you are taking us out of the intimacy of seeing the world through your characters eyes into the world where the character is standing back and examining it, not acting. Let us see through her eyes. Active action happening right now is more powerful.”Felt” is on a list of passive verbs that should be avoided as much as possible. Phrases like “made me feel” or “a feeling came over me” may be wordier but they work better because they create the feeling in readers that the POV character is experiencing the emotion right now. It’s more intimate. We are inside their head, not hearing them narrate a story after the fact. Even better are descriptive phrases.I felt angry at the sight of him.At the sight of him, my breaths shortened and my body tensed. I clamped my lips together, fighting the urge to speak my mind.No mention of “anger” and yet the second makes it clear what emotions the POV character is feeling, right?”Was” and “Were” are burdensome as well. Although sometimes unavoidable in description and exposition, look for every opportunity to replace them with more colorful verbs. For example:His face was still calm.His face remained calm.Seeing her approach, I began to back away.Seeing her approaching, I backed away.
The same thing but one is more immediate. It may be subtle but over the course of the novel or story little bits add up. It sometimes helps to keep a list of passive verbs and vet your manuscript in a later draft, looking for places where they can be replaced easily with better wording. This way you are not so caught up in trying to avoid them that it stymies getting words on the page. After all, it’s easier to fix what already exists than to create it in the first place. At least, most of the time that’s been my experience.
In a great post on her blog about this topic, agent Natalie Lakosil suggests: “My favorite way to think about it is to imagine that your book is the patient, and your reader is the doctor who needs to figure out what is wrong with them. When a patient walks in, they don’t say: ‘I have appendicitis.’ They’re going to say, ‘My side hurts and I keep throwing up!'”
To translate this into your fiction, she offers the following examples:
Don’t write: She was sad. Do write: She felt as if the sun would never shine again. It was a crushing, heavy feeling in the pit of her stomach. Oh no, she used “she felt,” but she recognizes this is sometimes a problem and offers this alternative to avoid it:A heavy, crushing feeling settled over her; tears welled in her eyes and she couldn’t breathe. Etc.etc.
The context of the story will make much clear. Is the character sad? Scared? Desperate? Angry? Nervous? Horny? All of the above? (Unlike, I know.) The reader will see by how the character acts in the scene as it plays out which is the right answer and that makes the story more powerful in many ways.Sometimes, telling is natural. As Lakosil points out with this example: “I advise to keep it real. Your patient isn’t going to walk in and say, ‘I believe I have an acute hyperactive diaphragm’; they’re going to say, ‘I have the hiccups!'”
Telling not only weakens the dramatic impact of the story and the intimacy with your narrator for readers, but it can also make a story feel predictable by foreshadowing too much, instead of keeping readers guessing if they were right.
Lakosil writes: “Readers like to feel smart; they like to be able to say, ‘I knew it!’ without feeling like they were told or led to that conclusion, but rather because they’re just that awesome at reading into clues.”
If you tell the reader something your character doesn’t know, the reader will feel disconnected. Frustration comes when the character fails to pick up on it and act.
Here’s Lakosil’s solution: “Think backwards. You’re the doctor; what do you need your patient to tell you in order to figure out what’s wrong with them? What logical order do you need to hear these symptoms in to figure it out?” She also warns: “Try to think through if what you’re leading with, or what you’re developing plot-wise, is answering or revealing things that don’t need to be answered or revealed yet. And also check if what you’re revealing is a why or a what.”
Motive and events are not always the same. If a person is dead that tells you little about how they died or why in many cases. Bullet holes to the brain are obvious, poison is not. And we know nothing yet of who killed them and why. Skilled mystery writers employ this powerfully. Revealing the why too early makes the reader ahead of the narrator and the story feel predictable and slow. The narrator becomes an idiot who is unsympathetic. Why can’t she see this already, the dolt?
So whys and whats should be paired so that they work together in a logical order that carries the plot forward to its denouement without ruining the anticipation and surprise.
So avoiding telling is really a matter of creating and nurturing intimacy between story and reader. Finding ways to keep the reader and narrators close so that the reader experiences events unfolding like real time, immediately, right now. These are several examples of things you can pinpoint which detract from that. I hope it helps you unravel a bit of the mystery behind the “Show v. Tell” criticism that’s commonly thrown around. For another helpful posts on this topic: see The Six Degrees Of Show V. Tell http://victoriamixon.com/2010/12/01/the-6-degrees-of-show-vs-tell-rated-by-quality/.
For what it’s worth…
Bryan Thomas Schmidt is an author and editor of adult and children’s speculative fiction. His debut novel, The Worker Prince(2011) received Honorable Mention on Barnes & Noble Book Club’s Year’s Best Science Fiction Releases for 2011. A sequel The Returning followed in 2012 and The Exodus will appear in 2013, completing the space opera Saga Of Davi Rhii. His first children’s books, 102 More Hilarious Dinosaur Books For Kids (ebook only) and Abraham Lincoln: Dinosaur Hunter- Land Of Legends (forthcoming) appeared from Delabarre Publishing in 2012. His short stories have appeared in magazines, anthologies and online. He edited the anthology Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 (2012) and is working on Beyond The Sun for Fairwood Press, headlined by Robert Silverberg, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Mike Resnick and Nancy Kress, forthcoming. He hosts #sffwrtcht (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writer’s Chat) Wednesdays at 9 pm ET on Twitter and is an affiliate member of the SFWA.