Archive for category How to write a book
My guest this week says that music is the key to most of his work. The title of his short story collection, Nothing But The Dead and Dying, came from a line in a Simon and Garfunkel song. All the stories are bound by the landscape of Alaska, where he worked for a while in a construction crew. Ennio Morricone helped him recreate its barren desolation. And when he’s been stuck on a story, even to the extent of giving up, rescue usually comes in the form of a random piece of music. He is Ryan W Bradley and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.
If there’s one major issue I find writers struggle with, it’s the difference between showing and telling. In every developmental report I write for a debut author, I find numerous instances where they would improve drastically by grasping this principle. This week I found myself explaining it again, and as I’ve been watching How To Get Away With Murder, I found myself reaching for courtroom terminology to explain …
It’s all about evidence versus verdicts. Simple, huh?
First, what is ‘show not tell’?
Show not tell is a technique that makes writing more vivid.
• It makes us feel as though we’ve been present as story events happen.
• It’s persuasive when you need to teach us something about a character, an event or even an object. (Was the car dangerous? Don’t tell us. Show it.)
• Show not tell is a great way to explain information or back story in a way the reader will remember – effortlessly.
Showing gets more oomph out of your story events. It lets you pull the reader into the characters’ lives and make them share their hopes, happinesses and disappointments.
So yes: showing is a good thing indeed.
Telling is like this: ‘it was frightening’.
Here’s the showing version: ‘she walked along the dark street. Were those her own footsteps echoing or was somebody following? She reached into her pocket and felt the reassuring bulk of her door keys. Her hand tightened around them; spikes she could use as a weapon just in case.’
Can you see the difference in vividness? ‘It was frightening’ is easy to skim over. We hardly notice it. But the showing version shows you what it was like.
And here’s where I found myself thinking of the courtroom: telling is a verdict; showing is presenting the evidence.
A big difference.
Evidence convinces, persuades. It lets the reader draw conclusions. It gives them a deeper level of understanding. They own the knowledge.
Telling instead of showing
Writers who haven’t grasped ‘show not tell’ try to tell the reader what to think. They present a series of statements or summaries. Here are some typical examples. ‘She was difficult to love.’ ‘He had to be the centre of attention.’ ‘He had a peculiar way of sabotaging his own happiness.’ ‘He was intimidating.’
Certainly these observations are striking, full of nuance and complexity, but they seem abstract. We hardly notice them. But if you present the evidence for those claims, the reader draws the conclusions… and your book starts to come alive.
Showing is about evidence. Telling is about the verdict.
Other things to consider about show not tell
Sometimes you can add the verdict as well, depending on your style. A character might tell an anecdote (showing) and conclude ‘she never wanted me to have a chance of happiness’, or ‘she was more generous than I deserved’ or ‘it scarred me for life’. Equally, you might leave that unsaid.
Showing requires more effort than telling, and a different mindset, which is one of the reasons writers find it difficult. Most of the time when we’re planning our books, we think in terms of telling. We decide ‘this confrontation will be upsetting’. But when we write the incident at full length we want to inhabit it so that the reader feels the impact. Short version: outlines tend to tell; drafts need to show.
There are times, though, when telling is entirely appropriate. We have to be selective with what we present to the reader. It’s not necessary to show every observation; only those that we want to emphasise. You might say ‘John didn’t like getting up early’ and it’s not something you want the reader to dwell on or digest. In that case, telling will do just fine.
Your reader is a witness
We can add another courtroom word to this discussion: witnesses. Witnesses were first-hand sources. They had an experience. Mostly when we write stories, we want to create them so vividly that the reader forgets they’re looking at prose. There are many elements to this, of course, but a significant part is good use of showing. If an event, a scene or an observation in your outline is important, make the reader a witness to it.
Thanks for the dark street pic, Henry Hyde
Do you find it tricky to show instead of tell? If you’ve mastered the difference, how did you do it? Did you notice you got better feedback from readers? Do you have any tips to help?
Yesterday I spoke at the New Generation Publishing selfpub summit, and the discussions threw up some interesting paradoxes that writers encounter.
1 We must produce, but never rush.
Unless we’re writing only for the satisfaction of filling a document, we need an output mentality. We set schedules, aim to present work to critiquers, editors and readers, build a rack of titles for more market share and £££. But we must also learn our natural pace to give a book the proper time.
Last week Maya Goode took my post about the slow-burn writer and added some thoughts of her own, resolving to be swift with her blogging output, and leisurely about her fiction. (To an extent, this post will include a hopscotch through my archives. If you’ve recently arrived on this blog and these ideas strike a chord, these links are a junction box for further exploring.)
So what do established authors do? What’s a reasonable daily wordcount? You might as well ask a bunch of cats to form an orderly queue at the fridge door. Every writer measures a good day’s work by different standards and methods (helpful, huh?) . And if slow sales are panicking you to hurry the next book, here’s what some authors did to fight back, without compromising their standards.
2 We learn from others, but teach ourselves.
No matter how many courses you attend or manuals you ingest, your most effective learning is your own explorations. None of my real-life author cronies ever took a writing course. They taught themselves.
How did they do that? By reading with awareness.
Here I’m going to advance a theory. If there’s such a thing as a natural writer, it’s a person who is unusually sensitive to prose. For such people, a book isn’t just a story told on pages, it’s a transformation they’re observing on their own heart and mind. With every phrase, a clutch of neurones parses this question – what did that do? (Honestly, it doesn’t spoil the fun. It’s part of the pleasure. Quick question – how many of us here are slow readers?)
Anyway, our individual style comes from noticing the tricks of others and knitting them into our DNA.
You might say I’m doing myself out of a job here. Indeed, how dare I offer writing books, courses, seminars et al? Well, I can’t do the work for you, but I can help with insights from my own journey, feedback, awareness, methodology and (I hope) a friendly word of encouragement. To be honest, I’m first a writer, then a teacher.
BTW, there are ways to find writing help without paying a second mortgage.
3 We make our own rules but recognise when we’re wrong.
Much of the time, the writing process is an experiment. If we’re novice authors, we’re searching for our style, our voice, our signature. Even when we’re experienced, we still grapple with uncertainty – a stubborn plot, obscure characters. Each book goes through a formative stage with shaky bits, and feedback to do things differently. Sometimes that feedback is dead right; sometimes it’s way off beam. We need to assert our own vision – but also know when to listen.
Sometimes we’re misled by critiquers who didn’t understand what we were doing. Sometimes we need to ignore an editor’s suggestions, but find out where the real problems lie.
But sometimes the only option is to unplug and listen to our instinct.
(Pic by MC Escher)
That’s me paradoxed out. What would you add? And tell me if you’re a slow reader – and if so, what slows you down!
You could split the writing blogoverse into two camps. There are those who streak through books, racking up a few releases a year. And there are those who incubate a manuscript for many, many moons. (I’m talking about experienced writers here, not those on the beginning curve.)
This is on my mind after Joanna Penn’s recent podcast interview with Russell Blake, where they discussed techniques for rapid writing. As card-carrying speed demons, they had a chuckle about literary writers who take their time.
And we do. Talking to my friend Orna Ross, we estimated the gestation for a literary novel as at least three years. For some of us it’s even longer. A few weeks ago I was chatting to an agent from Curtis Brown and she cheerily remarked that three years was fast for some of her writers. And then there’s the colossal amount of wastage. Booker winner Marlon James said in Guernica: ‘You can write one hundred pages and only use twenty.’
Assuming we’re spending all that time working, what are we doing, exactly? I’m curious about this, because when I teach masterclasses, someone inevitably asks what makes a book ‘literary’. I think the answer comes from what we do in that extra time.
Here’s what’s going on with Ever Rest. I nailed the plot in draft #1 and bolted it tighter in 2. So far, I’m neck and neck with the fast folks. Now on draft 3, each scene is taking me a minimum of four days – even though I’ve established the basics of who, what, why etc. And there may be a 4th draft or a fifth. It’s because I’m working on suggestion, emphasis, subtext, restraint, resonance. (And other stuff ) But it all boils down to this: nuance. And nuance can’t be hurried.
I submit, my friends, that this one word helps us understand what makes a work literary. Not introspection, dense sentences, poetry, show-off vocabulary, avant-garde structures, ambiguous endings, classical sources. Not even complex people or weighty themes. And if you’re about to say ‘disregard for story’, we’ve already thrashed that out here .
A nuanced experience is the difference. A non-literary work is simply about what happens.
Or that’s my theory. What say you?
A few weeks ago, a bunch of authors gathered for Books Are My Bag day at Barton’s bookshop in Leatherhead, Surrey. Inevitably, some customers asked for advice on writing and publishing. These were the five MFDs (most frequent discussions).
1 You are not alone.
This realisation marked an important threshold. The moment we all found other writers, online or in real-life groups, was like opening a secret door to home. For me, it was a revelation to be among people who treated writing as a routine part of life. Before then, I had a hoard of notebooks with scattered fragments, but couldn’t see a next step. Trying a book seemed a bit improbable, indeed ridiculous. After all, what would I do with it? Meeting other writers made it possible. Within a few months, I was sending short stories to magazines and searching for a grand idea that deserved to be a novel.
I saw this pattern repeated with other writer friends, especially when they began new relationships. Within a few months, the new partner would start writing. The baton was being passed. For some, it was a passing phase; for others, the start of a lifelong habit. And this makes me wonder – how many of us are looking for someone to show the way?
One writer said that three of her five novels were started from dreams. In one case, she dreamed the entire first chapter, complete with the character’s voice.
Most of us don’t find our dreams are so directly usable. Also, the self-indulgent dream sequence is high on most editors’ hate-lists.
But you can use dreams as prompts, or primers for another way of thinking. I recently found a dream diary from years ago, and expected it to be twaddle. The events were mostly nonsense, but each account had an underlying quality of significance and gut-level logic. Sometimes it’s worth connecting with that if we’re stuck, or unsure which way to take a story. We might find it helpful to open up a more poetic way of thinking, and put aside the literal.
3 Accept that you might have to park a project.
Many of the authors said this was a rite of passage. Although we strive through many rough drafts to complete a book, sometimes we simply can’t make an idea work. Perhaps we need to get older, wiser, more skilled at writing. It’s a mark of maturity to recognise that you can put a piece aside and start on something else. The missing piece might arrive out of the blue, but if it doesn’t, the book was a learning experience.
4 Don’t give up the day job.
One author in our group said: ‘Advances are tiny these days and hardly anyone gets enough royalties or PLR (payments from libraries) to live on. If you give up the day job you’ll have to tour 24/7 doing workshops in schools and every festival on the planet.’
Hands up: who imagined that if they got a publishing deal they’d be ditching the nine-to-five? It hardly ever happens. And festivals/workshops aren’t a reliable source of income, even if you have the energy to do them (and when will you get time to write?). Unless you set out with a business plan as well as a creativity plan – and some writers do, especially indies – your other life will be paying for your authorly life.
5 Separate your publishing achievements from your writing achievements.
Publishing is the ecosystem we’re involved in. Sometimes we’ll fare well, and sometimes we won’t – even if we’ve done everything right. Publishers might reject us or drop us. Marketing departments will decide we’re not worth publishing. Whether we’re traditionally published or indie, our books might not sell, despite the most astute campaigns. Amazon might change its algorithms or invent a new incentive that steals away all our readers. We don’t have any control over this. But we do have control over our craft. Writing – the reward of making good books and satisfying our own standards – is where we should put our pride.
Thanks, Leo Hartas, for the eyes and brain pic – which is from Husband Dave’s graphic novel Mirabilis, Year of Wonders
As we reel into December, how’s 2015 been for your writing and publishing endeavours? Is there something you’ve learned that you would pass onto a new writer? Perhaps this was the first year you made a serious go of writing, or put significant mileage into a manuscript, or hit your goals, or did something you wouldn’t have imagined was likely or possible. Leave a comment – and forgive me if I’m a little slow replying. I’m away this week with sporadic internet access.
First of all, does it matter if your editor is American, British, Canadian, Australian, or any other flavour of English?
Not for developmental editing, because that’s about the substance of the book. The editor won’t be recommending line corrections or studying your phrasing or grammar (although they might remark on it).
But in copy editing and proofreading, your use of language will be under scrutiny. That’s where you need an editor in tune with your territory. (Here’s a post on the different editorial processes and the order to do them.)
You say tomayto…
In case you’re wondering, there is far more difference than spellings and vocab. I’m a thoroughly Brit speaker, and I couldn’t copy-edit or proof a US book. Or an Australian book. Each territory has its own grammar, usage and punctuation. When I read a blog or book by an American that I know has immaculate language, my red pen itches.
Which of the Englishes to choose for your book?
If you’re from the UK, should you make a separate edition for the US … and others?
If you’ve been traditionally published, you might know that separate editions are made for each territory, and the books are usually re-edited for local ears. (Indeed, the rights may be sold to completely different publishers.)
Sometimes this goes beyond spelling and language use. The title might be changed; English locations and environments might be changed, all to be more appealing to the market. I worked on a book that was changed significantly for America because it took place in an English school. The rewrite replaced cricket with baseball and other details to make it less foreign for US readers. (Usually I’d find that irritating. Surely kids know that pavements are sidewalks and bonnets are hoods, right? But the publisher had a good artistic reason; the book was about a demon trapped in an ordinary school, and the humour worked because everything else was absolutely familiar.)
In indie publishing, the platforms are set up so that your edition goes worldwide. On KDP you can exclude territories, but I don’t think you can on Smashwords and other platforms – which makes it difficult to produce separate editions. Indeed, I don’t know any indies who do this because they’d lose certain advantages such as cross-linking of reviews.
So indies have to choose their variety of English and stick to it. Some authors change the spellings to American but keep everything else UK. They use American brand names too – one conference attendee cited the example of paracetamol, and how Americans are confused if you don’t call it Tylenol. For me, mixing the Englishes is too weird for my pedantic editor brain, so I stick to Brit.
How much do readers mind?
There was an interesting response from other speakers.
Mel Sherratt (@WriterMels), who writes crime thrillers, said when she first published she was appalled to find reviews on Amazon US that complained her book was full of errors. Digging further, she found this was a response to her UK English. But other readers said they enjoyed the distinctive English flavour, which was appropriate to her setting, so she decided that Englishness was part of her signature.
Paul Pilkington (@PaulPilkington), who writes suspense mystery, said he’d also had remarks from American readers. so he puts a note in the front matter, explaining that his books use UK conventions.
With my own novels, I have more reviews from US than UK readers. No one’s ever complained about the pronounced Brit flavour. Nail Your Novel fared a little differently, but not significantly so. In about 150 reviews for book 1, I had one reader who mistook the UK English for errors. I actually did the unwise thing of replying to the review – don’t do this at home – and asked for examples. When I pointed out that they were all sanctioned by the Oxford English Dictionary, he removed the review. (As I said, tackling negative reviews is usually a hiding to nothing, but I think it’s justified where your competence is being questioned for a dumb reason.)
Thanks for the tomato pic epSOS on Flickr
Clearly, some categories of reader will be more forgiving than others of a non-US usage. We’ll all have our own comfort levels and solutions, and it would be interesting to discuss further. What brand of English do you use? Do you make concessions to other territories? Have you ever had negative reviews based on this and did it make you take action? Let’s discuss!
November is when web-aware writers get their speed boots on; NaNoWriMo is afoot. We’ll see growing wordcounts reported around the tweetwires, in the forums and Facebook groups. I’ve never formally Nanoed, but I’m definitely a fan of the fast first draft. Here’s why.
It’s not just about speed for its own sake. It’s about harnessing all possible oomph from that initial ride of discovery with the characters. This draft is when we first make them speak and act instead of viewing them from a distance in note form. I’ve found a fast, intense blast is the best way to capture this in full vividness.
I’ve also learned what disrupts the flow – so here are five tips to keep the ideas coming.
1 Ignore the language. If the perfect wording comes to mind, fantastic. But my main aim is to write what I see, and that’s a scramble in itself. I just get it in the can. In any case, those scenes might be repurposed in edits, given to different characters, the roles may be swapped. Buffing the nuances would be a waste of time. So I don’t worry at all about whether my prose is fit to show around. I just hurl it onto the page.
2 Postpone the research. There are two kinds of facts you need for a novel.
1 The facts to check your story events are possible, or to find ingenious surprises from the special conditions of the story world. Usually we sort these out while we’re outlining.
2 Smaller details that arise while we’re writing the scene. Oh dear, you need to know what pall-bearers wear? No you don’t, because it doesn’t greatly affect what anyone will say or do. I scrawl a note in square brackets – [find out] – and continue to channel the action.
3 Don’t worry about factual consistency within the book – did this event happen on a Thursday, and was it twenty years ago? In most cases, you don’t need to sort your timeline out as you draft. Again, a short phrase in square brackets will allow you to flag it for later.
4 Or what characters look like. Eek, you’re writing your main character’s ex-lover for the first time. Or your main character. What do they look like? What’s it like to be in a room with them? If you haven’t already thought about this, you might grind to a halt, go squirreling off through Google, looking for actors who have the qualities that you’d like, or other things that help you visualise. But you don’t need to know this now. Write [what does he look like] and carry on as if you already know.
5 Or the beginning. You can’t know what the proper beginning of the book should be until you’ve polished the draft multiple times, so don’t fidget and dither about it now. Write a scene that roughly does the job – and you’re in.
Thanks for the lovely racehorse pic, Paul on Flickr
Do you have any tips for smart drafting? How detailed are you about your first draft, and are there any tasks you leave until later?
The year was 1992ish, and it was my first time at the critique class. A member read some uncertain opening chapters and asked the group for guidance on where to develop it next. One of the other members began to play the role of analyst and asked what statements he wanted to make with the story, and what answers and conclusions he wished to present.
I hadn’t been writing long, so I kept quiet. Even so, this line of questioning struck me as mistaken. Weren’t questions more potent in stories than answers and statements? And if you were going to present conclusions, or lead the reader to deduce them, didn’t you have to write the story to discover them?
Questions are everything for a creative writer, aren’t they? They are open doors. Possibilities. A beckoning finger; a calling voice. Questions are the very essence of mystery, which is the current of wonder that keeps most stories afloat. What will happen? Come and see.
By the way, I’m not supposed to be writing this. I should be finishing a piece on why I write, but it’s much easier to noodle around with something else. In considering ‘whys’, I’ve been diverted back to that college room, and questions about answers that should have been about questions. Especially the question ‘why’.
Some questions are better than others
Why ‘why’? Because there’s a hierarchy of questions. ‘What’, where’ and ‘how’ are important, because we must have events and cause and effect, but ‘why’ is the golden ticket. ‘What’, ‘where’ and ‘how’ are facts. ‘Why’ is emotions; the personal and individual urges that make us do interesting stuff; the forces that bend our judgement or make us take risks. ‘Why’ does not have a simple answer. It needs a story or a lifetime. It shows us the human condition; that one person is kind while another is vengeful, or one is fearful while another is forgiving. Indeed, the whodunit was perhaps misnamed; the real appeal is in whydunit.
Find your plot holes
‘Why’ is a magic bullet for the writing process too. Most plot holes can be diagnosed by conscientiously and relentlessly asking ‘why’. Why did the character do it? Why does this event matter? Why do the characters persist on their path if it’s causing such strife? If a plot event looks shaky or improbable but your gut says it fits, keep nibbling at why. (BTW, my characters book gives these concepts a thorough workout.)
I think that first session in the critique group taught me something valuable, even though it wasn’t my own work being discussed and I probably didn’t contribute a thing except super-concentrated facial expressions. For a storyteller, questions are more useful than answers.
Thanks for the pic Graeme Maclean
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a piece to finish. But do you have a particular lesson you remember from a critique group?