The Business and Craft of Writing: Show, Don’t Tell, Or Get the Reader Up Close and Personal

 

 

Something you might here frequently as a writer is “Show, don’t tell.” As a newer writer, I got so irritated hearing that. What does that even mean? HOW do you do that? And more importantly, how is that any different from what I’m trying to do right now?

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As a slightly-less new writer, I think I’m starting to understand.

I had the most amazing opportunity to take Brandon Sanderson’s writing workshop a few years ago and part of that included getting personal feedback from him. One week while he was sitting in with my critique group, we got to this section of my then-current WIP:

Night was falling as they emerged from the swamp. They were exhausted.

“Do we keep going or do we stop for the night?” Dragony asked.

Shinabar looked down. Era hadn’t stirred yet and she was paler than normal. “Keep going and hope that we don’t run into my men.”

The ambassador looked at him. “Let’s stop for just a couple of minutes. You look like death warmed over.”

“I feel like it too, and I’m not the only one who feels that way,” he warned.

The ambassador nodded. “Give her to me then. We’ll be able to move faster.” Shinabar hesitated a second before relinquishing her. Immediately, they took off again.

~

Dawn was breaking. “He’s back!”

“Landon! He’s back!”

Landon sighed in relief. “Good. Now I can kill him.”

“It doesn’t look like you’ll have to.”

Dragony and Shinabar staggered into camp; each leaning on the other for support while holding Era.

Men rushed forward to catch them as they collapsed.

This was at the end of what should have been an intense fight-as-we-take-flight scene in a swamp.

Brandon looked at me and told me something along the lines of  “You need to show more here. You’re telling me they’re exhausted. I want to feel their exhaustion. I want to feel the mud clinging to their boots, making it difficult to walk. I want the mosquitoes buzzing around their heads. I want to feel the night getting colder as the sun goes down.”

Ok. Yeah, I can do that. Showing means adding more sensory details. Easy peasy.

Ha.

That wasn’t good enough. And for the few years, I’d turn in something *awesome* for critiques and get told,

“Yeah, you need to show more here.”

Seriously. I give up.

And then I took an amazing class on “Tell, Don’t Show” by Josi Kilpack at the American Night Writers Association conference last September.

Turns out, I had only the first part of show, don’t tell.

Part A of “Show, Don’t Tell” is to engage the senses, which is what Brandon taught me.

Part B is to “avoid reminding us these are the character’s senses (i.e.
filtering).”

Using the example Josi gave, the difference between what I was doing and showing is the difference between example 1 and example 2.

  1. He watched as the sun slipped behind the horizon, taking the
    last traces of warmth with the light.
  2. The sun slipped behind the horizon, taking the last traces of
    warmth with the light.

See the difference? Feel the difference?

In example 1, we’re being told what He is experiencing. We’re focused on him and what he’s doing (watching the sun).

In example 2, all of our attention is on the sunset. We’ve all experienced a sunset. (If you haven’t, I’m terribly sorry. Your first assignment is to look up when sunset is for your town and then to go outside 5 minutes before then.)

We know what it feels like to see the sun go down. We know what it feels like as it gets darker. We know what it feels like as it gradually gets colder.

The writer doesn’t have to spend a lot of time describing those sensations. We as readers have already experienced them. Simply shifting our focus from the character to what is happening changes our experience. We’re more intimately involved in the story.

Part C is knowing when to show and when to tell. Honestly, that depends on what your end-goal for the scene is. And I can’t help you with that.

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Recharging the Well and Gearing up for 2019

Hi all!

I pseudo-won NaNoWriMo last month. Officially and technically, I lost since I didn’t write anywhere near 50,000 words. But I knew that it wasn’t possible. I’m just not capable of that at this point in time–both creatively and with my personal life. (Toddlers and pregnancy will do that to you.)

But!

I did write the most words I’ve ever written in a single month and the most words in a single day. And I finished the first draft of my Victorian governess romance. Wohoo!

Those wins are way more important to me than NaNo right now. I mean, sure, I want to officially win NaNo. It’s even one of my writing bucket list items.

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But this was a major win for me because it’s the first time I completed a full novel from beginning to end since middle school, and it was in a completely new genre for me. I’ve done plenty of shorter pieces and gotten a decent-way into writing other books before deciding those pieces needed trunked for the time being.

This month I’ve taken off writing to catch up on a bunch of reading–both pleasure and research. And of course, I couldn’t stop myself from beginning another WIP (think North and South with broken families). Guess this means I really do enjoy writing historical romance?

Anyway, beginning in January I’m diving into revisions. Ideally I’ll go through a couple revisions and be able to submit this piece later in 2019, but we’ll see what happens with that.

Also in 2019, I’m planning on writing another short story (think Sherlock Holmes, except with a nosy Victorian grandma and her long-suffering grandson) and getting as far into the first draft of the new WIP. Since I’m more familiar with my writing process and have a bit more of a solid habit, I’m hoping that baby Minerva will let me retain enough brain cells to write this next one a little faster, even though I’m working on everything else.

While I’m on the topic of 2019 writing goals, what topics would you like to see covered in the Business and Craft of Writing series?

Post-Conference Summary

It’s been over a month since I went to my conference and it’s been a whirlwind ever since. Now that my life is starting to settle back into a more-or-less normal routine, I thought it was a good opportunity to review the events.

First, I did not finish my first draft before the conference. In fact, it’s still not done, thanks in part to some epiphanies I had at the conference, but mostly to the fact that I just flat out haven’t had the time. (Seriously, I swear someone is messing with the clocks. And Daylight Savings hasn’t even happened/ended/whatever actually happens in the fall. But I digress.)

Second, the week prior to the conference, one of my friends mentioned that there were still openings for a query critique with one of the editors, so I figured I might as well go for it. I had a query more or less ready since I had to turn one in with the ten-pages I had already sent to the other editor for my manuscript critique. Of course, the night before I got on the plane, I decided to rework that query letter.

I’m… gonna skip the travel drama. Let’s just say that it featured stranger-men hitting on me at the airport at 5am in the security line, a flight surrounded by a group of men headed to a bachelor’s party sitting next to a group of similarly-aged women who were headed for a girls weekend, and then no cars despite reservations at the car rental place for a long line of angry, frustrated fellow travelers.

ANYWAY. I ended up being 5-10 minutes late for the Thursday workshops with only half a lunch instead of the full hour+ early I was expecting.

(Expectation vs Reality)

 

 

The critique group I was with was wonderful. There were five of us plus our sweet instructor. We all wrote some form of historical fiction and we ranged the gamut of newbie historical writers to multi-book published authors. I turned in the first chapter from my male main character’s POV since my true first chapter was already getting critiqued at that same conference. This version hadn’t seen any form of feedback prior to my sending it to them, so I was happy that most of their comments were a bit more nit-picky and on minor clarifications than any major problems.

That evening, I taught my writing support group about some website design 101 for authors from a web designer’s perspective via the chat feature of Google Hangouts *during* the keynote speech. (Fortunately, I had known that the two were on a collision-course due to time zones, so I wrote up my mini class in a Word doc, then copy/pasted it into Hangouts piecemeal and was able to more-or-less focus on the keynote.) Afterwards, I had the option of going to a book signing just down the road, participating in some writing sprints, or hanging out in the “networking” room and chatting with other authors. Between my stress and fatigue, I couldn’t make a decision and wasn’t in a good position to introduce myself to people, so I ended up basically muttering to myself while I shuffled around my plot index cards at an empty table in the networking room. That’s a perfectly acceptable and 100% normal writerly thing to do, right? Right??

Ok, so I don’t handle stress and exhaustion very well.

Friday morning I ran over to Kneaders for breakfast and took a wrong turn, so I ended up having to run back over to the conference session shoving my bacon & egg croissant sandwich in my mouth when no one was looking during the welcome speech because we technically weren’t allowed to have outside food. Whoops.

Fortunately, the rest of the day went a lot smoother and I didn’t resemble that second chicken nearly so much. The classes were amazing and like I mentioned earlier, I had several epiphanies on how to improve my current book.

Right after lunch, I had my query critique. I had ten minutes to show the editor my query letter and to discuss how to improve it. She surprised me when she told me that there were a few minor things I could tweak, but that she actually really liked it and then she pulled out her business card and started updating her work email. While she did that, she explained that if she were still a submissions editor, she would have forwarded my query letter to the acquisitions editors (her current position) for consideration. Instead, she wanted me to send her my book whenever it’s ready, even if it takes a year. So wohoo!

I skipped the rest of the class that I was already missing for this critiques and had a celebratory dance party in the hallway with the conference co-chairs while I waited for my husband to call me back so I could tell him.

And then I had to compose myself enough to go back to classes for the rest of the day. But that was ok, since these were ones I’d been looking forward to.

That evening I did a bit more socializing than the previous night and got to chat with some great authors before crashing.

Saturday was very similar. I went to classes, helped out at the timekeeping table for pitch sessions, then had my manuscript critique with a different editor. We spent a majority of the time going through her comments on my pages (which she emailed), then in the last minute or so that I had left, I explained that this was my first historical romance and I wanted to know how close to (or far from) the mark I actually was. Her response kinda stung because she was soooo spot-on. I needed to do more research. I had the right flavor, but not the depth she looked for. And the thing is, I’ve got a mountain of research books I bought specifically for this project, but I’ve only finished one of them. I’ve skimmed several of them and Googled several specific questions as they came up, but I started writing this book knowing that I had no clue where to start, so I figured I’d do the research *after* I finished the draft when I knew what sort of things I needed to research. (Hint: Waaaaaay more than I ever considered. Like, when were pens invented? And how did Victorian gentlemen bathe? Also, WHERE ARE ALL THE RESEARCH BOOKS ABOUT INDIANS FROM INDIA IN VICTORIAN ENGLAND?***)

Despite the minor sting of her comment, I loved that she told me. Everything she said was incredibly helpful and just raised my already-high respect for any good editor. In the future, I’m going to make a point of doing more research *before* I start a project instead of just waiting until the first draft is done. Of course, I’ll need to keep doing research afterwards, but what did I expect when I got into writing historical fiction?

My favorite part of the conference though, was actually after it was officially over. I was hanging out in the hotel lobby and Skyping my husband when one of my Thursday critique members caught me and invited me to join a large group that was going out for dinner. I got to spend the next couple of hours chatting with friends about the conference and made a bunch of new friends.

I loved it. And I can’t wait to go back.

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***I know the people actually lived there. A country as wealthy and powerful as England and that colonized India for years would have at least some Indians in residence. But it’s aggravating how difficult this information is to find. I’m extrapolating way more than I really should.

Pre-Conference Thoughts

Next week I’m going to a writing conference and I’m soooo excited. I went to a couple writing conferences in 2014 and life has been, well, life, so this is the first real opportunity I’ve had since then to go. I decided I was gonna go all out for this conference. I could sign up for a pitch session, a query critique, or a manuscript critique. When I registered, I was nowhere near finished with my WIP (I’m a slow first drafter), so I went with the manuscript critique.

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In an ideal world, I’m hoping the editor will love my story and ask me to send it to her when it’s ready. But that’s an ideal world. What I’m most (realistically) hoping for is validation. This is the first time I’ve tried writing this genre and I’ve been having so much fun writing it, but there are so many aspects of this particular story that I’m super insecure about. I know it’s not perfect.  This is only the first draft (plus a many-times rewritten first chapter).

Throughout the summer as the start of the conference got closer and closer and as I got further into this draft, I decided I wanted to complete the entire draft before I go to the conference. Keep in mind, I’d written about 40,000 words in about 9 months and I was looking at 30-40,000 more in like… 2 months and I still have a couple of very young children that I’d prefer to keep alive and happy.

Last week I hit the writing HARD to try and reach a writing goal from last year, and I broke several personal writing records.

Now I’m a week away and I’ve got seven chapters left. And I signed up for a query critique in addition to the manuscript critique, so I’ve gotta polish it up. And I have a bunch of critiques I need to do for the workshop I signed up for. It’s gonna be a busy week, but I think I can actually make it all happen.

In addition to all of the learning and writing-boosts, I’m hoping to make a bunch of writing friends at this conference. It’s a smaller one, so the odds of me actually being able to interact with people are significantly higher.

Now I need to go write.

Quick Update And A Plug For Lit Service

The blog’s been a bit neglected the last few month, but I promise, I haven’t forgotten it!

Between Edgar and Bartholomew getting sick (repeatedly), myself getting sick, and trying to keep up with my writing during April’s Camp NaNo, I was quickly approaching burnout and took a couple weeks off to recover. And then promptly went on a long road trip halfway across the country and had to deal with ear infections and car sickness in my kids.

So. I’m sorry. I promise I’ll try to do better (but I can’t make any guarantees).

I’m currently part of two different writing support/critique groups and I *love* both of them.

This month I’m going to start submitting a short story for publication as soon as I make a couple more polishing tweaks. Several people have told me they were disappointed when they finished reading it because they wanted to keep reading, so I’ve got some high hopes. They’ve also requested that I expand that story into a full-length novel. We’ll see when I get around to that, since I’ve got some ideas for how to do that.

My Victorian romance is also coming along nicely. Assuming that I can stick with my ambitious daily wordcount goals, I’ll finish by the end of August.

And the love-of-my-heart swampy-island dragon fantasy is trying to sneak back into the foreground, so I rewrote the first page and I’m *so* excited about the direction it’s headed now. But it has to wait until the Victorian romance is finished. Boo. (But also, yay since finishing books is always exciting.)

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And a quick plug for Lit Service Podcast. Some of my friends from Brandon Sanderson’s class have this awesome podcast where they talk writing stuff for 15-20ish minutes, then they critique the first chapter of submitted works. They have guest authors, agents, and editors on at least once every month. You should check them out and consider submitting your first chapter. Seriously. These guys have some great feedback. Here’s their website: https://litservicepodcast.wixsite.com/litnation.

The Business and Craft of Writing: Pantsing vs. Plotting

A while back I was talking with some of my family and I mentioned that I was a pantser*. They gave me a very confused look. I’m sure that if you’re just barely getting into writing, you’re equally confused.

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When I say I’m a pantser, it refers to the phrase “flying by the seat of their pants.” In other words, I don’t plan out my books before I write them. I literally sit down and start writing. Who knows what’s going to happen this writing session? Frequently, I’ll write something and then sit back and go, “Huh. Did not see that coming. Now what?”

Other people (arguably more sane/organized than I am) sit down and write an outline before they start writing. That is plotting. In a later post, I’ll go more into detail about what’s involved with plotting and outlining since there are far too many options to go into detail right now. tenor

I’ve heard pantsing and plotting also referred to as gardener and architect. A gardener will plant story seeds and see what grows and the architect plans out the entire story before they start building.

Generally, writers will claim one side or the other, but in actuality, this isn’t a zero-sum game. Most people land somewhere in between and even change how they write depending on their project.

My usual writing process looks like this:

  • Come up with cool idea
  • Play around with idea in my head
  • Come up with vague ideas of events in the story
  • Start writing
  • Get stuck
  • Look at idea some more
  • Start writing again
  • Get stuck
  • Sit down and write down vague ideas
  • Write
  • Get stuck
  • Figure out next two or three scenes
  • Write
  • Repeat last three steps

This process is often referred to as road-mapping/road-tripping (among other things), but it’s a combination of pantsing and plotting.

Pantsing is great for really getting to know and understand your characters, but tend to have plot issues. You know how you read a book with amazing characters and then you reach the end and think…. “That’s it? That was such a let-down.” It was probably written by a pantser.

Plotting, *surprise surprise* tends to have the reverse problem(s). Everything fits soooo well together and “Did you see that foreshadowing in Ch 5??? That was awesome!” but the characters are kinda flat and boring. You totally know what the villain is going to do because you’ve seen that same thing before.

Ideally, if you tend toward one end of the spectrum instead of the other, you won’t have any of those issues because you’ll revise your story multiple times before it gets published.

*No, I do not go around de-pantsing people. I haven’t done that since I was like ten.

The Business and Craft of Writing: Expectations for Book Lengths and a Bit on Genres

I finished writing my first book when I was 14. I was so proud of that thing. I had hand-written 150 pages of fantasy. And a 150-page book isn’t the shortest book out there, especially for a middle-schooler.

Here’s the thing that I didn’t know then: there are certain expectations about book lengths and genres that are a decent indicator of whether or not a writer is a beginner.* And everything about my story screamed NEWBIE.

First thing you should know: when you’re writing a book, most people in the publishing industry go by word count. Page count is often inaccurate because there are so many variables (including font size, font type, spacing, and even what version of Word you’re using) that affect what each individual is actually seeing. But I could do an entire post on formatting.** In fact, I will do a post on formatting in the future.

Second, there are so many different genres you could be writing in, and those affect word counts. Usually when I say genre, I’m referring to where on the bookshelf would someone who’s selling the book place each book. Unfortunately, there are several different definitions of genre, which makes it very confusing. For example, there’s nonfiction, general fiction, genre fiction (which is romance, science fiction, fantasy, horror, etc.), children’s books (which even that entails more than you’d think), and on and on and on.

A novel is what most people think of when they think “book.” A novel can be anywhere from 40,000 words on up. 110K-120K is typically the safest high-end word count a novel can reach before people get antsy about the length. If you’re writing for children, those numbers are lower.

For adults, here’s a guideline that can at least get you started.

Short Story: 0-7,500

Novelette: 7,500-15,000

Novella: 15,000-40,000

Novel: 40,000+

A book like the one I wrote is considered middle grade fantasy or MG for short. Excluding the two missing pages, which I’ll generously guesstimate totaled 1000 words, that story is 26,000 words long.

Middle grade books are typically for kids 8-12 years old and are approx. 20,000 to 40,000 words long. Technically, yes, my book was in the correct MG word count range, but since it’s a fantasy, it’d get a few side-eyes from agents just on the length along. (Fantasy books for any age are generally longer since you need more words for adequate world-building.)

This article on Writer’s Digest gives a better breakdown of acceptable word counts per genre and age group.

*Like anything and everything with writing, there are definitely exceptions. Some best-selling books are shorter than the norm and others are waaaaay longer. (I’m looking at you, Branderson.)

**Design and layout is one of my other true loves.

The Business and Craft of Writing: What is publishing?

This seems like a funny, no duh kind of question, but seriously, when I was 14 and looking for publishers, I thought that writers wrote their book, sent it to a publisher (i.e, paid the publisher), and then it’d show up in bookstores after the publisher made the word document into an actual book.

Ha. Haha.

Not even close.

I was aware enough to know that there were fake publishers/scammers out there, so I searched for publishers who didn’t cost a lot. (Also, I was 14. I had no money.) When I found a publisher who would PAY ME for my book, I was so thrilled! And then because I’m a procrastinator and my family moved halfway across the country, I never sent them my book.

*Current me wipes relieved sweat off face*

Turns out, there are different types of publishers beyond scammers and legit publishers. Forteen-year-old me had found what is called a vanity press. Technically, yes, that particular publisher would have paid me, but only after I had covered the cost of printing. More on that in a bit.

What I really wanted is what is referred to as traditional publishing. A traditional publisher takes submissions, decides if they want to publish that book, and if they decide YES, then they will contact the author with an offer. The author can then accept and sign the publishing contract as-is, negotiate for different rights/more money, or reject the offer. The publisher will then edit the book, design the book (both the cover and the interior), market the book, print the book, and get the book into bookstores. While an author has some input once a traditional publisher is working on their book, they actually don’t have that much control over most of what happens, (like the design and marketing of the book).big-five

In a later post I’ll cover contacts and payment. But for now, this is the basics of what a traditional publisher does. At no point does the author ever pay a traditional publisher.

Simon & Schuster, Macmillan, Hachette, Penguin Random House, and HarperCollins are known as the “Big 5” US publishers, but there are many other legitimate traditional publishers out there.

Next is self-publishing. There are so many ways to self-publish now that I’m not even going to attempt describing all of them, but essentially self-publishing means that the author is paying for and/or actually doing the work to publish their book. Self-publishing gets a bad rap since a bunch of authors either don’t know how to produced quality work (whether it’s the actual writing, the editing, or the design) or can’t/won’t pay someone else with the appropriate skills. Fortunately, that’s not the case for a large number of self-published authors. The upside to self-publishing (compared to traditional publishing) is that the author has complete control over every aspect of the publication for the book. It’s just more work for them.

There is something called hybrid-publishing. Essentially it’s a combination of the previous two. The vanity press that I found when I was 14 is a great example. They would have done much of the work of a traditional publisher, but I would have had to pay the costs of printing and done the marketing myself. There are various combinations to hybrid publishing and there’s a debate on whether or not it’s a separate category from self-publishing.

Whew. That’s a lot of info and I’m really just skimming the surface of what publishing is. For the majority of this series, I’m going to focus on traditional publishing since that is what I’m most interested in. I may touch on self-publishing a bit, but I’m not particularly familiar with it.

Let me know if there’s a specific publishing- or writing-related question you and I’ll do my best to answer it in another post!

Introducing The Business and Craft of Writing Series

22159317_1509436672426752_1079978262542680064_nI’ve been meaning to update for months, but I’ve been busy with life and my writing. (So it goes… Sigh.)

Anyway, last November, I did an Instagram photo challenge for writers. One of the items was to post our “Author Bucket List.” I hadn’t ever specifically thought of what my bucket list would be, though I did have some long term goals and hopes. Two of which kind of go hand-in-hand: 1) Present at a writing conference and 2) Teach a creative writing class.

As I was thinking about what I wanted to do with this blog and my bucket list, several things occurred to me.

 

A) My passion is publishing and writing. I majored in English and minored in editing, but I frequently said that if my minor had been a major, I would have dropped English in a heartbeat. And maybe someday when my kids are out of the house (or basically out of the house), I’ll actually work in publishing.

2) I LOVE to advise people on writing and publishing.

3) If I want to teach or present, I better start practicing.

All of which is a very long-winded way of me saying that I’m starting a new blog series! At first it’ll probably just be a random compilation of various tidbits about the publishing industry and writing craft, but eventually I hope to have a system worked out.

The first few topics will be things that I wished I knew back when I was 14 and looking at getting my first novel published. I’m already working on the first post, so keep your eyes out for that one!

 

Writing goal updates

Earlier this year I set four writing goals for myself.

  1. Finish a first draft of something
  2. Revise an earlier novel
  3. Write a short story
  4. Write more consistently

I’m happy to say that I *am* writing more consistently than I was and I’ve started numbers 2 & 3. Goal number 1 is kinda not cooperating, so I’m changing tactics.

The story that I had originally hoped to finish the first draft of is so broken right now that I really don’t know where to begin fixing it. I have some ideas but I think one of the biggest issues is that this particular story is one that I technically started when I was 14, then trunked until after college. I’m not the same person I was 10+ years ago and I’m not interested in the same things in the same kind of way I was then. So I’ve decided that this one is getting re-trunked for now. I might pull it back out later, but we’ll see.

I have several other ideas floating around that I’m interested in writing. One of them is a middle grade (MG) fantasy in the style of Diana Wynne Jones, who is my writing idol. A second idea is a Victorian romance. I’ve already started the MG book and I have a rough plot idea, but I’m not super interested in writing that at the moment. But I don’t know for sure what direction I’m going with the Victorian romance either. So currently I’m researching and fine-tuning both ideas. Later this year I’ll work on one of them and *maybe* try NaNoWriMo in November. (That’s super iffy though.)

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Last month I mentioned that I was starting a short story for my July Camp NaNo project. I’m glad to say that I won again! Of course, I set my official goal so ridiculously low that I wrote almost half of it the very last night of camp, but hey! It kept me motivated.

I’m still working on that story and hope to finish it this month. As soon as I’m done with it, then I’ll see where I am with research/fine-tuning and either start a new story or continue with my revision in September.