Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Show and Tell

“…a form of bad advice often given to young writers-namely, that the job of the author is to show, not tell. Needless to say, many great novelists combine ‘dramatic’ showing with long sections of the flat-out authorial narration that is, I guess, what is meant by telling. And the warning against telling leads to a confusion that causes novice writers to think everything should be acted out…”

- Reading like a Writer by Francine Prose

Yesterday morning, I finally began a new YA manuscript from the idea that had been on my mind for weeks. When I didn’t get called to work, I had two choices; work on submissions or begin a new piece. Since I sent a number of submissions last week, I decided I didn’t have to rush to send more.

I had the title and a very basic concept, but nothing else. While I was getting ready (showering, feeding the kids) I thought more about what I wanted to write. When I first began writing, I'd often have a faint idea and maybe a title, or sometimes, just a compelling first sentence, but then I'd just let my fingers create the characters and where the story would go. Now, I deliberate more before I begin. I may even do a rough outline, either on paper or in my mind. There are some people that map out the entire story before writing it, but that’s not how I operate. I like to only have some sense of characters, their background stories, and perhaps a main plot or two. When it’s not premeditated, I love the surprise of what meanders from my mind onto the paper.

The more I write, the less I struggle with each new piece, though I certainly spend more time crafting with care. When I started writing seriously, many elements of writing were lost on me. I didn’t pay attention to length of sentence or paragraph, and I made more grammatical errors. Many of my early sentences didn’t flow, but were rather stilted. I was told that I spent too much time in characters’ heads, rather than providing action.

Since I haven’t received a coveted contact, I don’t know if I’ve worked out all of my flaws. But I’ve made progress. There’s more ease and care in my choice of words. I can play around with them differently, to make words sound more pleasing and for meaning than I could before. I’ve learned to pare down, so that no word is superfluous (Or at least I try). I also make an effort to refrain from peppering the pages with unnecessary adverbs.

Last year, I showed my manuscript to a librarian I worked with, who pointed out two problems in the piece that nobody else who had read it had noticed. First, was my gratuitous use of the word, "so". Not the one, "And so I took a walk," but rather, "She was so angry." Once she said it, I found it everywhere, and had to beat many of them down like a “Whack a Mole” game. Conversely, my choice of adjectives improved immensely. "So" is the Waldo from, Where's Waldo, and now when I write, I have to look out for it. Second, she noticed one glaring case of show and not tell. For an exciting scene, I had two children plan exactly what they were going to do to solve a problem and then carry it out. Why not just have them carry it out, which would be more suspenseful? I agreed, and edited accordingly. But show and not tell is a trickier concept to navigate.

My feeling, as a novice writer, is that agents and editors look for children’s books that immediately leap off the page, which leaves no time for character or plot development. But some of the most beautifully written books, which have won awards, and are loved my millions of children, do not start smack in the action. These books begin with a couple of interesting ingredients, and are given time to simmer. There’s often much focus on the main character’s thoughts, whether from the first or third person perspective, with each action by the character being paired with careful contemplation. When I’m told to show and not tell, there must be something else I’m missing. Recent writings may have remedied the quandary, but only new feedback will tell. To this end, it’s hard to be vigilant, if I’m not sure where to place my vigilance.

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


  1. What great advice! And I love the quote at the end. Aren't librarians a treasure? (So are teachers!)

  2. Suzette, thanks for the comments. The good thing about having this librarian look at a manuscript is that she knows books for that audience.

  3. It's too bad that to get published authors seem to have to submit to a number of artificial rules that don't reflect what is good...
    But writing is like any other form of creative expression done professionally, a slew of compromises until the infamous "breakthrough", after which creators get greater leeway.

  4. @ Alesa, I've seen plenty of good and great authors break a rule or two, but they follow most others. I think the children's market is particularly unforgiving because it's been decided (and maybe proven for all I know) that their attention span is shorter.

  5. I can't comment on that: I don't have access to kids to get their opinions about books, and I was atypical as a child.

    At any rate, we do what we must to get where we have to go.

  6. @ Alesa, "...we do what we must to get where we have to go." Agreed.