Thursday, May 13, 2010

Editor's Desk: Showing Vs. Telling

A break from Alex work to give my opinion on a question that frequently comes up for new writers:

Yesterday a friend commenting on my posts asked:
Just out of curiosity, what is your view of showing versus telling? I wonder this because there seems to be this very hard and fast rule currently that everything possible must be shown rather than told. But if you go back some years and look at what is considered great literature, there is a lot of telling. I recently read a short story from the 1930's by John Cheever which was almost entirely telling, but a really good story.
How do you approach this in your own books, and how do you approach it when looking at a manuscript for Sophia Press?

As a hard-and-fast rule, eliminating all "telling" from your story is usually impossible. Some telling is nearly inevitable: there's no easy way to inform your reader a character's age, for example, without telling. (It's much easier to say, "he was about thirty years old" than to show him having a 30th birthday or to have a friend say, "Now that you're thirty, are you going to settle down?" etc.)

My philosophy, inasmuch as I even have one on the subject, is that both showing and telling should serve the demands of the story. Some stories demand more telling than others. But there are a couple of caveats new authors should remember:

In our culture, movies are the predominant medium, with television being the second most-predominant medium. As Walker Percy acidly observed, more people will watch one Superbowl than will read any particular New York Times Bestseller. So most of us bring our viewing habits to our reading habits.

How does this affect storytelling? Well, we literary types can moan and groan about the predominance of the visual as much as we like, but the fact is, our audience (who, from my view, we are here to serve with our stories, not to teach) prefers that their stories be visual. They enjoy them more, they read them more, they find those stories more moving, more powerful, more entertaining. 

This is the main reason why "telling" has fallen out of fashion since the 1930s: because most modern readers find excessive "telling" is boring to read, simply because it's dificult to visualize, and the modern reader reads by drawing heavily on his visual imagination.

Also there's the element of impatience and escape. When I say that modern readers are impatient, it doesn't mean we only want short stories: quite the contrary! But we have a lot of stress and distraction in our lives, and we don't want to have to work so hard at trying to enjoy our entertainment: we appreciate it when the story helps us launch into escape mode immediately by immersing us in action or conflict or another world.

We modern readers like the sense of being immersed in a story, part of the action, flowing along with the narrative. We like it when our books read like movies: when we can just sit back and watch it all go by. When the narrative is halted for any reason, it can be jarring. So authors shouldn't do it, unless they have a very good reason to.

And, let's be honest, authors make the most money when their books are bought and made into movies. Books that contain more showing than telling are easier to translate into film: hence are more likely to be bought. Any writing teacher worth his salt is going to point that out to his students.

So if your story requires telling (and some do), make certain that the telling is:
a) humorous and entertaining, stylistically fun to read
b) heavily visual so that your reader isn't bored.
I've always been a very visual writer (I think in images and don't consider myself a particularly strong stylist) so accepting the viewpoint of the modern reader hasn't been difficult for me. I *am* in many ways, a modern reader myself! I don't have a literary background, and studied television, not literature, which may indicate my inclination. Scriptwriters must think in images and seldom, if ever, are allowed to tell their audiences anything. But I don't believe that this is a hard-and-fast rule for books.

As an editor, again, I primarily look at storytelling technique to find out if it is adequately serving the story. I don't start out with a set of rules in my head and look at a manuscript to find out if it obeys them: I open the MS and read it the way any reader would.

But when I come to a part that is wooden, clunky, or boring, I stop reading and try to figure out why. That's what editors do. And yes, sometimes the reason it's boring is because the reader has yanked me out of the story in order to subject me to several paragraphs of telling. This is really annoying when I was enjoying being immersed in the escape, or the argument, or the complex situation the character was grappling with. Once you've been sucked into the story, you don't like to leave.

Or, if I'm not interested in the story at all, I often discover that the reason I'm not is because the author is summarizing action and events instead of involving me in it. They're telling me about how the character responded to, say, his mom's death or his father's betrayal instead of showing me and letting me have a chance to feel the character's pain or rage.

I don't notice 'telling' if the author uses it to explain action I've just seen and am interested in knowing more about. I don't mind 'telling' if the author halts the narrative to give some funny commentary on what the characters have just been doing. So long as I'm entertained, I'm good.

But most authors whose MS I read have not yet mastered the storytelling form, and so 'telling' for them is an easy-out, a way to dump information on the reader, or to moralize or preach to me. They often don't recognize what a jolt they've given me, their reader, when they halt the story for a 'telling' session. They don't realize how non-engaged I am when they start their story by giving me information that doesn't seem releveant to me instead of pulling me into a fascinating situation.

It's a tricky operation, storytelling. And for most beginning authors, the mantra "show don't tell" is useful because it helps them learn to see their story the way their readers will: it gets them away from summarizing and keeping us distant from the action and instead forces them to learn to let the reader share in the action.

Some masters of storytelling will always be able to break the rules and still entertain us. But for beginning writers, learning the parameters of their audience, and accepting their limitations and needs, will be more helpful than setting out to ignore rules they haven't yet mastered.

Hope this helps!

Monday, May 10, 2010

Preview Edition of Alex available May 21st!!!

... So our entire family is working hard to make our Preview Edition Release Deadline for Alex O'Donnell, which, I'm delighted to say, will means that the Preview Edition of Alex O'Donnell and the Forty Hackers will be available for sale at the Dayton Catholic Homeschool Conference! So if you are in or near Ohio, and want you very own limited-edition copy of Alex, come to the Fairy Tale Novels table at the conference on May 21, 2010 and pick up a signed copy from me! The Preview Edition of my books are released specifically in honor of a particular conference (Waking Rose was released at the Midwest Catholic Family Conference of 2007, and Midnight Dancers at the Illionois Catholic Homeschool Conference of 2008) and bear a stamp stating this fact on the same page. They're highly limited-edition (we only run about 50 copies or less of each edition) and they probably all contain some typos, since they're released before we are able to do more thorough read-throughs. However, the Preview Edition is a chance for fans to get a first-look at the new book and to own edition that might someday (possibly) become highly collectible.

(We'll do another Preview Edition for the Minnesota Catholic Homeschool Conference on May 28-29th, but I won't be at that conference: Elizabeth Hausladen, director of The Shadow of the Bear movie will be manning the Fairy Tale Novels table. Those copies of Alex won't be signed, but they will be available.)

The official release date of Alex will probably be sometime in June: and this time we'll be able to take pre-orders. Stay tuned for further details!

Editing Alex: The Importance of the Read-Aloud

Alex O'Donnell and the Forty CyberThieves marks an important milestone for me: this the first book where the final edit involves reading it out loud to my own children.  For one thing, I have two teenagers now (13 and almost-15), which is a somewhat nerve-wracking development.  For another thing, Alex has turned out to be a surprisingly family-friendly book: my 6 year old and 10 year old are avidly following the story as well.  (This should be good news to all the 14-year-old readers who are still waiting for parental permission to read The Midnight Dancers and Waking Rose!)

An important component of the final edit of a book is the Read-Aloud.  Now, I confess that I haven't done an official read-aloud since Black as Night. Reading your manuscript out loud to a small audience is a great way to do a thorough edit quickly, and I bet it'll weed out typos better than Microsoft spellcheck. But there are other advantages to doing a Read-Aloud, which I'll list for those of you who are writers (or who want to be!). 

Basically, the Read-Aloud has a way of making even the Writer (who is thoroughly familiar with the work) a Listener, and gives that crucial Outsider's Perspective that's so critical to the editing phase. But these are the aspects of the work that particularly stand out when you read it out loud to an audience:

1. Awkward phrasing.
If you can't read it out loud smoothly, you'd better rephrase it.  Some of the manuscripts I see for Sophia Institute Press could be easily ironed out if only their authors read them out loud before submitting.  If this is your bugaboo, start reading your early drafts out loud (hint: make a friend read it while you listen).  Reading aloud the final draft will hopefully eliminate the clunkiness.

2. Inconsistencies
If someone stands up in the same paragraph (without sitting down in between) you or your audience will probably notice it. Also basic fact checks. ("Hey, you just said ten percent of a million bucks is $10,000: is that really true?")

3. Rhythmn
Andrew Pudewa opines that fine writing style comes by hearing, not from seeeing, the written word. Poetry and plays come alive only when they're read aloud. Same with a novel. Rhythmn, the "third dimension" of the novel, so to speak, is thrown into sharp relief when the book is spoken. If your writing has style, speaking will reveal it.  If it doesn't, same thing. 
I don't consider myself a particularly strong stylist.  It's something I'm working on (and teen fiction is rather style-lite, so I don't work on it much).  But the Read-Aloud is an invaluable aid to developing this intuitive writing virtue.

4. Humor
I'm not a very funny person, and the jokes I make in speech tend to be either a) lame or b) too esoterically subtle to be recognizable.  Writing gives me a chance to actually try to sound funny, but it's still a lot of work for me. If you've read one of my books and laughed at something, chances are it's because I rephrased it and rephrased it and fiddled with it until it got a laugh out of me.  Reading-aloud has a way of generating even better punchlines. Sometimes your audience might even suggest a better one for you. :)   And on the basic level, humor is all about rhythmn, so see #3. 

Some of the characters in Alex have rather corny humor (ie: like mine) but others actually need to be funny. And pulling the humor out of a situation is always tough. Working on humor in a manuscript, I find Mark Twain's aphorism is particularly appropriate: "The difference between the right word and the almost-right-word is the difference between the lightning and the lighning bug."

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Violence Experts for Alex: Nunchaku vs. Katana

Any book about Alex O'Donnell is going to involve fighting--and the fifth Fairy Tale Novel, Alex O'Donnell and the Forty Cyberthieves is no exception!  In fact, this book has more (and more elaborate) fight scenes than any I've done thus far.

Of course, being a rather wimpy and terrified person myself, I still don't know much about any kind of fighting, so that's where I depend on the two friends I've termed my "violence experts."

They've helped choreograph the fight scenes for my last three books, and they always make those sessions so fun to work on.  This time I finally thought to bring a camera to one of our sessions, which was helpful not just for creating memories but for referencing various stances in the book text itself.
In the left-hand picture, they're demonstrating how to use nunchucks (or Japanese: nunchaku) to neutralize a sword by locking the blade in the chains. One scene in Alex O'Donnell involves the Japanese katana sword and the flail weapons.  It's very interesting to see these two very different weapons interacting with each other.

In the right-hand picture, they've switched weapons to show me how someone with nunchucks would attack someone with a sword. (I think that if you click these photos, you can see the larger versions.)

So as you can see, work on Alex O'Donnell and the Forty CyberThieves is proceeding at a pretty good rate!  I hope to bring you more news of the book soon.  In the meantime, check out the new Alex section on the Fairy Tale Novels website, and if you think you're the biggest fan of the Fairy Tale Novels, prove it to the world by entering our contest and winning a free hardcover of the new book!

Enjoy the pictures, and stay tuned for more news on Alex!