Archive for the ‘Cheryl’s Words’ Category

Karen recently wrote a great post on the perennial rule of writing, “Show don’t tell.”  Check it out for excellent examples on what that even means, and how to incorporate it in your writing.  I thought I’d take the opposite tack though…and talk about when you really ought to tell.

“Show don’t tell” is a good rule most of the time–but not always.  One of the tricks of storytelling is to know when to judiciously use telling instead.  It’s a mistake to assume that the rule means we should always include lush detail and description for everything our characters do.  That can easily land you in “walking the dog” territory, a phrase used to describe writing that gives minute detail on actions that aren’t important.

The classic example is trying to show a character’s morning routine.  “The alarm clock went off at precisely six am.  John immediately stretched and got out of bed.  He put his feet into the slippers lined up by the bedside table and walked into the bathroom.  His razor was already sitting by the sink, in precise parallel to his toothbrush and tube of toothpaste.”

At this point, readers may want to sleep themselves!  Often, this kind of writing can be cut entirely–if the action is at John’s office, just begin there.  But maybe that overly detailed morning routine is trying to do something–to show that John is very precise and organized.  This could probably be shown somewhere else–or you could do it in a small piece of telling: “After waking up at six and following the same routine as he had for the last five years, John arrived at the office promptly at 7:30.”  Maybe as the story goes on, John’s morning routine will start changing in an important way.  Establishing it in one quick piece of telling sets the stage for what comes later, without needing to invest long lengths of time in showing it.

Telling is also effective for jumping between two points in the story, usually across a time lapse, when nothing very important happened in between.  You may need the reader to know something about what happened in that time, but it’s not vital enough to devote great detail to it.  To borrow an example from The Princess Bride, in the “unabridged version,” there’s a long, long stretch between Buttercup’s engagement to Prince Humperdink and her kidnapping.  In the abridged version, this is shortened to something like, “With one thing and another, three years passed.”  There’s the time jump.  If desired, much more could have been conveyed with just a few more phrases.  For example, “With political negotiations for Prince Humperdink and princess lessons for Buttercup, three years passed.”  Now we know all we need to about the intervening time, without wading through scenes of Humperdink negotiating or Buttercup learning etiquette.

Telling is also helpful at times when you deliberately want to withhold detail, not because it’s unimportant but because it is.  In the case of a mystery, telling can help to keep the reader guessing.  “Jane picked up a package on the way to work, and only noticed when she arrived that she had the wrong one.”  Perhaps Jane accidentally intercepted a package between spies, and the next three chapters will involve trying to trace the package’s intended recipient.  If we saw Jane at the post office, with precise detail on other customers and everyone she interacts with, it could give too much away too quickly.

I also rather like using telling for understatement and comedic effect.  “After the thunderstorm, the two flat tires, the absurdly long detour and especially the flock of unfriendly sheep, Jack became convinced the road trip was cursed.”  I admit I might be tempted to show some of those mishaps, but if the story is really about what happens once Jack winds up stranded in a small town, quickly dispensing with how he got there could be the best way to go.  And I’m not sure I can make unfriendly sheep any funnier than what readers would imagine on their own…

Like just about every rule of writing, “Show don’t tell” is true but not absolute.  There’s just one rule that seems to apply every single time, and that’s from George Orwell: “Break every rule rather than write something barbarous.”

Show–but if doing so will mean something unnecessary, long-winded or barbarous–then tell.


ReflectionsMost writers I know are very interested in books and resources about writing.  I thought today I’d share a review of a book that touches on some helpful writing ideas, from one of my favorite authors.  Reflections on the Magic of Writing by Diana Wynne Jones is not quite a book about writing…and not quite an autobiography…but a good bit of both.

It’s a collection of essays that are less about writing than they are about storytelling, which is not quite the same thing.  It’s not much about the craft of writing, and definitely not about publishing.  It’s about something more integral, about the art of crafting a story rather than how that story becomes a novel.

So don’t come here looking for one essay about how to create a character, another about plot arcs, or a third about the advantages of outlining.  Some of those elements may come in, but you’ll only find them as one possible aspect of an essay about, for example, the influence of Anglo-Saxen myths on modern fantasy, or the ultimate responsibility of writing for children.

That second topic may be one of my favorites addressed here, in the essay “Writing for Children: A Matter of Responsibility.”  That sounds rather weighty and apt to be moralizing, but it isn’t at all.  Without being overwhelming about it and certainly without advocating for Victorian stories where bad little children swiftly meet bad ends, Diana Wynne Jones gets at the influence books have on children.

I’ve certainly “met” books later in life that have influenced me, but I think stories touch us and shape us in childhood in a way that later books don’t.  Diana Wynne Jones obviously understood that, and obviously believed in the power of books to be a positive influence.  I don’t mean that her books are moralizing, but I think they do build strength and courage and belief in oneself and one’s own imagination.  Good lessons for anyone, at any age.

I also particularly enjoyed “A Talk About Rules,” which discusses how seemingly-ironclad rules change.  I think this essay may be the key to why the book isn’t more about rules of writing–because it’s evident she doesn’t much believe in them.  To quote: “What you see should be a magnificent, whirling, imaginative mess of notions, ideas, wild hypotheses, new insights, strange action and bizarre adventures.  And the frame that holds this mess is the story.”

I mentioned autobiography at the beginning, and the book frequently tells stories about Diana Wynne Jones’ own life.  She tells wonderful, improbable stories about growing up in a town where everyone was insane, during World War II when the whole world had run mad.  She talks about her own writing process (something that always fascinates me about authors I love), about the influences on some of her novels, and about her experiences being an author.

If there’s a flaw in the book, it’s that some of the stories become repetitive.  This is a compilation of essays and talks that were originally spread across years, and when they’re all put together, you find that she describes the same details of her childhood three or four times.  Perhaps slightly heavier editing would have resolved some of this.  As it stands, it’s not too big an annoyance, although it may be an argument for reading this a few essays at a time, rather than straight-through.

If you really want a book about writing, I recommend Writing Magic by Gail Carson Levine.  But if you want a book about stories (and about Diana Wynne Jones) this collection is delightful.  And perhaps by focusing more on that deeper core, she’s created a book that would be as interesting to readers as it is to writers.  Really, to anyone who enjoys stories–particularly if you enjoy Diana Wynne Jones’ stories!

Let’s talk about goals today.  I wrote about writing resolutions for New Year’s back in January, but maybe it’s a good time to revisit the topic–because after almost five months, it’s probably a good time to revisit goals too.

I’m in the middle of making some revisions to my writing goals–mostly because I’m not in the middle of revising my writing, and I should be.  I think one of the hazards of writing is that it’s easy to get caught up in the new shiny project, and never finish that one that’s already had so much work put into it.  Usually I have pretty good focus, but lately I must confess I’ve been flailing a bit.

I have two novel drafts that just need some revision.  One only needs one last final round, the other a few more passes.  But I’ve also started thinking about my next project, the historical fiction novel I want to do for NaNoWriMo 2013.  I figured between now and then is a good time for some research–which is good.  Except that lately, I’ve been shunting aside the other drafts in favor of research, which is bad!

My original writing goal for the year was to write every day.  I’ve done pretty well on that and I still am…only I don’t feel like I’m actually moving forward, because I’m not working on what I really should.  To avoid an endless string of half-finished projects and to move forward on larger things like, say, publishing, I really need to finish at least one novel draft before concentrating on the new one.  So I’ve been coming up with revised goals.

I’m a big fan of small-picture goals, like writing every day.  It’s immediately attainable, it’s measurable, it’s something you have to do now rather than putting off (as you could something that has a longer timeline).  However, I find I need to pair my small-picture goal with some bigger-picture ones, and set some deadlines.

Right now I’m giving myself a week for no-pressure, no-guilt fiddling about with the historical fiction novel.  But I set a date to begin revising my nearly-finished draft, and another date for finishing it!  After that, I’ll set new goal dates for things like querying agents and revising that second in-progress draft.

So that’s where I find myself on writing goals, not quite halfway into the year.  Did you set any goals at the beginning of the year (or some other time)?  How has it been working out for you?

I love a good fantasy world.  I live in the real world (and I assume you do too!), so I love the chance to visit different worlds when I read.  When I look at my favorite fantasy books, many are favorites at least in part because I love visiting the place where they’re set.

As a reader, I love elaborate worlds–but as a writer, I must admit that my first thoughts are usually around characters and plot, and much less about the details of where those characters live.  Fortunately, I found a very helpful resource to get me thinking in those directions: Patricia C. Wrede’s Fantasy Worldbuilding Questions.

This is a great tool for anyone trying to jump-start thoughts about creating a new world.  The list provides dozens of questions, often on things I never really thought about–but which spark all sorts of ideas once they’re brought up!

It starts with the basics about the world itself, like physical laws and whether you’re even on Earth.  There’s a section with questions about the magic system, and another one for people and culture: What do people wear, do they have special holidays, what foods do they eat and how do they buy that food?  Do they have culture-specific greetings, and are they friendly to foreigners?  There are also questions about government, geography, and languages…to just scratch the surface.

There are tons of questions on all sorts of aspects of the world.  You may not want to answer every question, but I find that even just reading them helped me to at least keep some concepts at the back of my mind as I write.  And sometimes it was helpful noticing which questions weren’t so relevant–for instance, my novel isn’t about large-scale conflict between countries, so generally all my kingdoms get along reasonably well, and questions about political tensions aren’t so relevant.  But thinking about what a story isn’t can sometimes be as helpful as thinking about what it is.

These questions helped me notice that I have a prevalence of evil magicians in my world, and I’d better explain why so many magicians are evil.  I also had to sit back and look at just how common I wanted magic to be, and decided that for most people in my countries, any magic more powerful than a trinket or a charm was fairly unusual–but not a shock to anyone either.  So they probably don’t cook their dinner using magic, but if they live near a dark forest, an attack by a rogue hippogryph has about the same likelihood as an attack by a pack of wolves.  And they don’t see talking cats every day, but might every year or so.

We know so many details about the culture we live in, but they’re familiar so we take them for granted.  These worldbuilding questions are immensely helpful for making you think about the aspects of the world that we generally don’t need to think about–so that you can decide what they might be like in another world.  If you’re creating a fantasy world or even considering it, then you should explore the Worldbuilding Questions.

And two more suggestions at the end of this post: not only did Patricia C. Wrede write the Worldbuilding Questions, she also wrote the brilliant Enchanted Forest Chronicles, which I highly recommend if you enjoy light-hearted fantasy.

If you enjoy fantasy of any kind, then I also have to tell you about the Once Upon a Time reading experience currently being held by one of my favorite bloggers, Carl of Stainless Steel Droppings.  All you have to do to participate is read and review some fantasy during the spring–and it’s much more fun if you also read other people’s reviews, which are all linked here.  It’s a great community of readers, and a fantastic way to find some new books to read…and new fantasy worlds to explore!

I love reading for a lot of reasons, but as a writer, I also love what I can learn from watching how other writers have told stories.  Of course the best thing is seeing how they’ve done things well—but there’s something to be said for learning from how other people do things badly too.

I thought I’d explore one narrative device I’ve noticed that, for me at least, never seems to work.  I don’t know if there’s a name for it, so maybe I’ll coin one.  Let’s call it the Hidden Horror.

The Hidden Horror is when SOMETHING happens (or has happened).  A character knows about it and reacts in shock and dismay…you know, an “Oh, the horror!” moment.  Sometimes that’s literally what the character says 🙂 but the point is that somehow it’s conveyed to the reader that the character feels SOMETHING really awful and horrible and excruciatingly bad has happened.  But—we don’t know what it is yet.  The narrator holds onto the secret, and makes us keep reading to find out what the SOMETHING is.  Sooner or later whatever happened is revealed, and of course we’re supposed to echo, “Oh, the horror!  Now I see what was so awful!”

The trouble is, usually I don’t.  Most of the time, if a writer makes me wait to find out what the Hidden Horror is, I end up with a complete anticlimax.  My reaction is usually, “Really?  That’s not that bad.”

And for the record—I am not someone with a high threshold for horror.  It’s really not that hard to make me squirm with blood and death and so on.  But if you make me wait to find out the details…it doesn’t work.

I encountered one of the clearest examples of this reading The Da Vinci Code.  There are some seriously horrifying things happening (quite apart from the horrifyingly inaccurate Biblical scholarship), but Dan Brown uses this trick of the Hidden Horror again and again…and gives me anticlimactic moments again and again.

I do have a theory on why this doesn’t work.  As soon as the character reacts, I start imagining what horribleness could have happened.  Horror is in some ways a personal thing.  One scenario may feel far more horrible to me than it would to you–and something that would seriously disturb you wouldn’t really bother me.  Maybe you can’t stand spiders but don’t mind slasher films, while I feel friendly towards spiders but would rather not hear vivid descriptions of…well, the things that come up in slasher films.  We’ll skip the details—I don’t like them!

The point is, when I start imagining the Hidden Horror, I imagine whatever would be most horrible to me.  And after I’ve had time to imagine that, how can the horrible imagining of the author—distant, third-party, impersonal—compare to whatever I conjured up?

I love plot twists (even when I guess them), and I love knowing there’s some secret in the narrative that I have to keep reading to learn.  I also enjoy suspense–when you know the story is building up towards something, which will probably be horrible when it arrives.  Perhaps the key difference is that, if it hasn’t happened yet, it’s not being hidden.  It’s just approaching, and I’m not trying to imagine it because I’m still waiting for it to arrive.

It may also be a problem of over-emphasis.  When the characters go on and on about the awfulness, when the author goes to great lengths to convince me it’s horrible, almost anything would be an anticlimax when the Hidden Horror is finally revealed.

So—am I the only one this is true for?  Do you like when an author makes you wait for a big reveal of awfulness, or is it often an anticlimax for you too?

What mind do you read with?  I find it all rather complicated—sometimes I have on my reader-mind…or my editor-mind…or my writer-mind.  With the reader-mind, of course, I just enjoy what I’m reading and get carried along by the story.  With the editor-mind, I wince at comma splices and notice repetitive word choice.  With the writer-mind, I appreciate the craft, and have some idea of why the reader-mind is having such a good time.

Based on conversations with friends, I think this is something that often happens to writers.  We engage with the craft in so many ways, it changes all the ways we engage with a story.

Now and then one mind comes out when I’d rather it didn’t.  The editor-mind has had fits over some of Mercedes Lackey’s word choice.  And the writer-mind nearly got me into real trouble with a paper in college.

We were supposed to write a literary analysis of a book of our choice from a selected list, and I’d chosen Sixty Stories by Donald Barthelme.  I have to confess, one reason I made that choice was because, hidden among those sixty stories, there was one called “The Phantom of the Opera’s Friend,” which is about exactly what it sounds like (that, I think, was the fangirl-mind at work).  But that wasn’t the main reason.  Mostly, I was fascinated by Barthelme’s use of pop culture references.

Pop culture turns up in stories all the time, to good or bad effect, but this was particularly interesting because Barthelme’s stories are bizarre.  Fragmented, fractured, plots go in strange directions, characters may be in fantasy stories or they may simply be delusional, the writing style changes midway, some stories are all dialogue or all stream of consciousness and, well, it’s all bizarre in pretty much every direction it can be.  And then in the middle of the chaos, just as I had completely lost any sense of normality or touch with the real world, Barthelme drops in a reference to Rolling Stone or Nietzsche, and suddenly I felt I had a touch-point again.  Suddenly the bizarre was again accessible and I felt reconnected to the story.

My writer-mind thought this was fascinating.  What an amazingly cool device in writing!  You can tell a completely mad story, and keep the reader grounded by giving them something familiar in the midst of it.  I still think that’s wonderful.

But my professor wanted me to be looking at it as a reader.  All right, so you read a bizarre story that you can connect with because the writer used a trick with recognizable references.  So?  What does the reader get out of this?

I still don’t have a good answer to that.  So I wrote something vague about disconnecting from the world and then reconnecting in order to learn something about the world.  My professor didn’t really like that as my conclusion and to be honest, neither did I, but I got a decent grade–so I guess it worked out.  The real difficulty was that my writer-mind got very excited and got me into writing about this, and then it was all the wrong angle for the paper I was supposed to write!

Most of the time the writer-mind helps me out, though.  I like being able to appreciate the cool things writers are doing.  Mostly it just gives me a different way to enjoy what I’m reading.  The editor-mind does interfere with some reading…but I guess it also encourages me to read good books!

So do you run into this reading?  Do you find it benefits or detracts from your reading to have all these different minds at work?  And do you know any reliable way to turn the wrong ones off?

Or maybe this all seems quite fragmented and fractured and disconnected from reality, and I ought to have thrown in some pop culture references to keep you connected.  But after all, why do you think I even mentioned the Phantom of the Opera? 🙂

January ResolutionsThere’s something about a new calendar year.  It makes me want to tackle new projects and do exciting things and make all sorts of plans and resolutions–like new authors to read, new recipes to try, new places to visit.  But since this is a writing blog, let’s talk about writing plans.

Do you have a writing resolution for 2013?  Since I’m in the middle of figuring out mine, for this post I thought I’d share some ways I’ve found to make my resolutions easier to achieve.  The hero of my current novel draft has this thing about rules 🙂 but I won’t be that pushy.  I’ll just share a few suggestions that have helped me in the past.

Maybe you want to start writing—or write every day—or finish a project—or send query letters out for that finished project—or finally take a stab at the world of self-publishing.  All worthy goals, but all of them different!  Suggestion #1 is know your goal.  I thoroughly enjoy National Novel Writing Month, but I know that writing 50,000 words in a month isn’t the right goal for everyone.  Figure out what your own, personal, individual goal should be.

With that in mind, make sure you know exactly what your goal is.  Suggestion #2 is Make it specific.  “Writing more” is a great idea, but how do you measure it?  Same thing with “writing something.”  Don’t try to write more—try to write every day (or every week, or every other day, or whatever is going to work for you).  Don’t try to write something—try to write the first three chapters of your novel, or finish that short story, or write a poem every week.  That way, you can hold yourself accountable to exactly what you planned to do—and feel a sense of accomplishment when you know you’ve met your goal!

Suggestion #3 is Make it attainable.  I really, really, really don’t like not reaching my goals.  But I’m the one who’s setting them, so I make sure I set goals I can reach!  Or to drag in a little geekiness and quote Scotty from Star Trek, it’s a poor engineer who can’t complete a project faster than his own estimates.

If you didn’t write a single line of fiction last year, maybe planning to write a novel this year isn’t the right goal (though maybe it is!)  You could always start by trying to write a short story.  If you can’t find any time to write, don’t resolve to start writing for three hours a day; try to write for 15 minutes.  Don’t obsess over the goal you think you should have and make it impossible for yourself.  Don’t make it so easy either that you don’t accomplish anything…but small goals can often accomplish more than people think.  And you can always start small and make it bigger later on.

Related to the concept of making a goal attainable, make sure it’s something you control.  Getting an agent for your novel is a great dream, but the hard truth is, that’s not really under our control.  Some agent has to decide to take on your novel, and unless you possess Jedi mind control tricks, you can’t make them do that.  That doesn’t mean you can’t work on it—but set your goal around the parts you can control.  Resolve to send out 50 query letters, or to attend three writing conferences to meet agents.  Whether you get an agent or not (I’ll cross my fingers for you!), you know you’ve done what you can do about it.

And finally, Suggestion #4 is Don’t give up.  Maybe your goal was to write every day, and life (or streaming seasons of TV series on Netflix…I won’t judge you) got in the way, and you haven’t written for two weeks.  Channel your inner Scarlet O’Hara and remember, “Tomorrow is another day.”  You can always pick up and begin again.  The two weeks have already gone, but that’s no reason to throw away all the future work you could do.  Remind yourself why you set the goal to begin with, make changes if you need to, and remember that January isn’t the only time people are allowed to make resolutions.

I know I certainly don’t have all the answers, and I’d love to hear other ideas too!  What are your best suggestions (or even rules) for achieving a writing goal?  And what goals are you planning for 2013?  I’ll hold a good thought for you!

It’s a shame there are so many of us writers and so few publishers…or are there?

In this mass-multi-media-mayhem of a world we thrive in, there have never been so many options.  Whether your goal is to publish traditionally, indie, or by any other means your creative mind can concoct, the world is at the whim of your will.

But, how do we get there?  Well, here’s the short answer.  Anybody can publish a book.  One click of your mouse can show you websites sleek enough to easily connect your story to the masses.

Here are some tougher questions.  Is self-publishing the best option?  How do we know when our writing is good enough?  And at what point should we stop editing?  How do we market?  Where and how do we find agents if self-publishing isn’t the goal?  And what is this elevator pitch/query letter/synopsis thing people always talk about?

Well, if you’ve read this far, are interested in our answers to these questions, or if these questions have fired new ones in the furnace of your mind, then read on.  We will explore every facet of writing our fingertips can click onto the page.  Have a question?  Good, we love discussions and debates.  Just remember to be respectful.

Stonehenge craves knowledge, so if you have something informative to offer, or a different perspective to pitch, please share.  The one thing I’ve come to understand is, the more I know, the more I realize I don’t know.  While the wealth of knowledge we carry is immense, we are always learning and adapting.  So click around.  Peruse our site.  You just might find an answer to that question burning in your mind.