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Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Things You Need to Know NOW!

Some day I’m going to have a really great e-book with all the things I’ve learned. For now, it will come piece by piece on my blog. J

Things You Need To Know NOW!
In early 2010 a kind editor at Cedar Fort suggested that I join a writers group to get peer feedback on my manuscript for Bloom. I found the American Night Writers Association, a group for LDS women and decided it was the perfect fit for me.

The biggest thing I’ve learned since then is that not only getting your work critiqued, but also critiquing others work is one of the best ways to write well. In those short months I’ve critiqued several full manuscripts, selections, pitch letters, synopses for my sister members, and I’ve learned a TON about how to write well.
I can’t just sit back with this knowledge. Of course I share it whenever I post my comments in someone’s work, but I feel that you all have a right to know these basics. Basics I didn’t have a clue about before I had my work critiqued. It’s the reason I have several manuscripts still heavily littered with “was” or incorrect punctuation of dialog.

My 13 year old sister participated in the youth program for NaNo WriMo this year and let me critique her MS. She let me rip it apart harshly, and I justified my bad behavior by telling her if she knows this now, she has 10 years of good writing on me.

So here are the things I wish I’d discovered years ago. The thing you need to know NOW!

This isn’t show & tell. Just show.
It’s just that the things that everyone in my world can do easily—naturally—are a struggle to me. Like the easiest power Enchanters have, that is sensing the thoughts and feelings of others and in turn blocking those thoughts and feelings from being seen by just anyone, should be, by now, second nature. I have been trained to block and sense since I was old enough to be trained in the simple powers and still when I get really excited or if I’m not concentrating on it, I forget to control it. It can be rather embarrassing, especially when you’re thinking about how utterly good looking the guy in your math class is, you teacher calls on you and in the fluster of the moment you let that slip.
And he starts laughing.

Above is the second paragraph from version five of Bloom. Five major revisions, a draft I considered final. I actually submitted this version to three publishers for consideration. Aside from the rampant run on sentences and total lack of commas, there’re enough ‘telling’ words in that paragraph to choke an editor. No wonder the Cedar Fort editor asked me to join a writing group. I’m surprised she didn’t beg me to get a Masters of Fine Arts before I ever darkened her desk again with what I called writing!
You can imagine the comments I got from the great ladies who volunteered to critique. I deserved that every other comment contained the phrase “show instead of tell.”

I’ve put the “telling words” in bold so they stick out. (As if they didn’t jump out enough!) They are common indicators that a writer is “telling” the reader about something instead of painting a picture for them or “showing.”

Let’s look at some bad, obvious examples. In my 2010 NaNo WriMo novel Mae Nickson: Monster Hunter, I wrote this sentence to describe a character:
He had long greasy brown hair and dark brown, almost black eyes. He was skinny and didn’t look strong.

Using had, was, and look are weak ways of describing the character. I like to call the better way to write writing actively. Use your description for a purpose. Here’s a better example:
Long, greasy brown hair hung limply in front of his face, almost obscuring his black eyes. He bent his skinny form into the chair.

A reader engages in this type of writing. Instead of just telling you he’s skinny, I use an action to describe it; not only showing you what he looks like but getting him into a chair as well.
Kelly Mortimer, of Mortimer Literary Agency, explained it well in her handouts for her presentation at the 2010 ANWA Conference. She clarifies the mistake like this, “Instead of moving the story forward through action and dialog, a writer tells us through exposition…Watch forms of ‘to be’ and ‘felt.’”

Words that stick out to me: was (or is, but most authors write in past tense so ‘was’ tends to pop up most), has, had, have, felt.

Why is ‘was’ a problem? Don’t get me wrong, “Was” certainly has a place in your manuscript, but at least 98% of the time you can cut it out and reword the sentence. Too much exposition, or telling, bores a reader. Immersing the reader in the action and dialog excites a reader.

Don’t go through your manuscript and cut out every instance of “was,” or the others words, you see. You’ll end up with some very awkward sentences. Do go through and cut out as many as you can, rewording for more active, interesting language.

When I edited Bloom after I got back my peer critiques, changing all those telling words frustrated me. Here’re some tips for when you get frustrated:

Take the sentence that’s you’re trying to reword.
Example: It’s just that the things that everyone in my world can do easily—naturally—are a struggle to me.
Then I ask myself a question about it that usually contains either Why? or How?
Example: Why are these natural abilities a struggle for Finna?
Just answer the question: Finna often doubts herself. Enchanter powers take concentration, and second guessing her abilities diminishes it.
Using what you’ve written, reword the sentence.
Example: It all seems to come so easily to everyone else, but I struggle. Probably because I second guess myself all the time.

NOW this is important:
Do not, under any circumstances, change the voice of your narrator. If you can’t find a way to change the sentence without making it awkward, or if it sounds out of character, then leave it. Your writing voice is most important, and if you change it you’ll sound just like everyone else. And that’s the last thing you want to do.  
I wish I could post the better paragraph from Bloom so you could see the incredible transformation “showing” instead of “telling” did for it. Truth is, that whole paragraph got axed and the information it conveyed to the reader sprinkled throughout an entire chapter with a lot more action and a lot less exposition.

Look For—Grammar Is Not Optional: Punctuating Dialog and Other Common Grammar Mistakes

1 comment:

  1. Let me just say how awesome your writing is now. Strong, fun, and you're a brilliant story-teller.
    I just finished a published book that had so much telling, I almost put it down. AAAHHHH!!!!


About Me!

I've been writing since I was old enough to grasp a crayon--my grandma even has an early copy of a "book" I made her. I have a bachelor's degree in history from the University of Wyoming and will (hopefully) soon be starting a graduate program in English. When I'm not breaking up impromptu UFC fights in the living room or losing miserably to my boys at Uno, I'm ... well, writing or editing, of course! I'm married to my best friend, and we have three rambunctious but simply amazing little boys.


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