Thursday, November 29, 2012

Why I hate the phrase "show vs. tell"

Well, Thanksgiving is long over, yet somehow it's still not December, and Christmas is only a distant glimmer on the horizon. So it seems a good time as any to unleash my curmudgeonly side (note: you've been warned!).

I really truly hate it when people invoke "show vs. tell" to justify why a line or a scene should be dramatized rather than merely explained. It's like nails on a chalkboard. Especially, of course, when it's being used to critique my own work!

But I don't think my hatred is all due to pride. I don't have the same reaction to, say, "character development," or "rising tension." No, I think it's because "show vs. tell" is such a trite phrase, in my opinion often meaningless and over-used. In reality, a writer's decision to "show" or "tell" can be meaty and complex, and "show" should not always win out.

Firstly, I think "showing" is often a quick path to cliché writing. How many ways are there to say that my character's heart is racing? And if I instead turn to my thesaurus and say her heart is pounding, or thumping, or galloping out of her chest like a doped thoroughbred, does that make it any less cliché?

Also, a wise editor once taught me that sometimes "telling", at the end of a long, descriptive paragraph, can be an emotional confirmation for a reader, even a perfect kick in the stomach. Take this example from Harry Potter (underlining mine!): "Harry, Ron, and Hermione sniffed interestedly as they passed large, bubbling cauldrons. . . . They chose the [table] nearest a gold-colored cauldron that was emitting one of the most seductive scents Harry had ever inhaled: Somehow it reminded him simultaneously of treacle tart, the woody smell of a broomstick handle, and something flowery he thought he might have smelled at the Burrow. A great contentment stole over him; he grinned across at Ron, who grinned back lazily." Beautiful description, huh? But I think it's the telling in the last sentence that solidifies it all in my mind.

Plus, sometimes, the line between "showing" and "telling" is quite blurred. Take this scene from Please Excuse Vera Dietz, a contemporary YA novel by A. S. King (and one of my favorite reads of the year thus far!):

(warning, one curse word and a pretty insignificant spoiler)

"So, I kiss him and it feels really nice, and I really don't care that James is twenty-three, or a college dropout, or that he smokes. I wonder if this is step two on the baby-steps-to-loserdom trip I seem to be taking tonight, but I simultaneously don't care. I'm eighteen years old and I've never had a real boyfriend. I've never got past first base or gone to the prom or got detention for PDA. All this time I thought that if I avoided all the slutty shit my mother must have done, I would be a good person. I'd be safe. I'd be better than her. But while James is kissing me and holding the back of my head with his strong fingers entwined in my hair, I realize I don't really care about my mother and how she became a shallow loser capable of leaving her husband and kid. I realize that this feels nice and I really want to keep doing it."

Other than the description of James holding her, it's a lot of "telling". So why does this passage kick me in the gut? I think it's because it's so sad; I realized here all Vera had been missing out on, how much she'd been holding herself back and never allowing herself to live, all because she was dealing with the repercussions of her mother's disappearance, and her fear of making some of the same mistakes. And here's where "showing vs. telling" gets confusing. Is King "telling" me Vera's history, or using Vera's history and word choice to "show" me how confused Vera is?

This really gets at the heart of why I think "showing vs. telling" is over-used and meaningless. The best writing is a combination of both. It's using language in whatever unique way is necessary to create gut-wrenching scenes and sympathetic characters. So sure, sometimes even I need a reminder that I should draw a scene out more, "show" what's going on inside a character's head, heart, and lower intestines. But I do wish writer-dom would get over the phrase!

In other writerly, end of November news, my revision is near complete. Yay! It's about to go out to a small group of readers--and on the off chance any of them are reading this, feel free to remind me about "show vs. tell." I'm sure you're right.

How do you feel about the phrase "show vs. tell"? Is there any other writing advice that sets your teeth on edge?

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Giving thanks once again

I've never been a very patriotic person. It's mostly a personality thing. I've always been suspicious of jingoism, empty platitudes, and flag-waving, no matter the cause. So who would've thought five years abroad would make me more patriotic than ever before?

Living in the UK, I discovered that I am through and through American: Of course, I have a loud, nasally voice. I also have no compunction about asking questions. I'm ridiculously polite and chatty with perfect strangers. And I have an undeniable rebellious streak. Oh, and I love Thanksgiving.

Phil and I celebrated our first Thanksgiving in the UK only about a month after we moved there. We wanted to thank everyone who had helped us with the move, and adjusting to a new country, and Thanksgiving seemed the perfect excuse for a feast and a party. Over the years, the tradition continued. We met more people, friends, colleagues, neighbors, and our guest list grew. Some years we had over twenty people squashed in our apartment, writers brushing shoulders with scientists, musicians chatting with teachers. I never tired of inviting people, listening to them reply excitedly: "I've never been to a Thanksgiving before!"

Of course, ours wasn't exactly a traditional Thanksgiving... or maybe it was truly traditional, more in the pilgrim sense than the modern American sense. People brought what they were used to at parties, bags of chips (crisps), boxes of Pocky Sticks, chocolates, beer, wine. But people also brought their own traditions, tempura, macarons, Anglo Saxon frumenty, Yorkshire pudding, and apple strudel.

So as much as I'm currently missing my Bristol friends, I'm very pleased to share that the tradition is continuing this year. The guest list is considerably smaller: we know fewer people, plus most people already have family obligations. But it will be a collection of old friends and new, and a range of traditional (though definitely more American) food. Plus I'm cooking a turkey for the first time.

More than ever, it reminds me how thankful I am for Thanksgiving: for time to celebrate old friendships and start new friendships, to break bread together, and escape the mess of the world for a few hours. A tradition I'm crazy proud of.

How do you celebrate Thanksgiving?

Oh, and before I forget, HAPPY THANKSGIVING to all my readers!

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Walking a novel: An update

Back in August, in the early days of adjusting to my new life in Massachusetts, I mentioned that there was an extensive trail system right near my house. I decided to squeeze a daily walk into my schedule, both to get some much-needed exercise, but also to add some thinking time into my writing life.

Well, it's mid-November now. Some days (like today) it's raining. Or other days, it's cold, or I'm exhausted, or I'm running out of time. Some days I don't make it out. But most days I've kept walking. And I have noticed some positive changes in my writing routine.

I used to be a big time pacer while working. I also did a lot of laundry as I tried to sort out my writing problems. But lately I've gotten into the habit of jotting down all my questions and worries and taking them with me on my walk. And by the time I get home, I almost always have an answer. Sometimes the answer takes three days and several walks to develop. But I've definitely spent less time staring at my screen these past few months.

I also love being out in nature every day. I check up on the Canada Geese, the turtles, the ducks. Every so often I'll see herons or hawks. I've always been a woodsy person, and I feel most myself when I'm outdoors. And it's helped the writing, too. I'm giving myself time to think, so instead of settling for the easiest answers, I hope I'm finding the right answers.

Of course, I've been doing less writing overall. Mostly I attribute that to working part time rather than the walks. But I rarely have days where I write for hours on end. Worse, the walking wears me out! Obviously, that's a good thing. But it's also then tempting to snack and hang out online, rather than getting on with work.

I've been thinking about all this lately as it's getting dark earlier, and colder, and I wonder what my winter schedule is going to look like. But for now, I think it's working, and I hope I'm able to keep hitting the trails.

Have you ever changed your writing schedule? How did it work out?

*The picture is mine, taken this past August. Obviously the trail doesn't look quite so lush anymore. I'll have to bring my camera out again to get some updated shots.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

My love affair with libraries

Clapp Library, Belchertown, MA
I've been reminded lately of my love affair with libraries. I used my library in Bristol, England frequently--I was part of a book group there, and dramatically expanded my British author repertoire. But being back in the US, with an American library card, has been such a treat: all those American books I've missed for the past several years!

But I've always loved libraries. They're safe and comfortable, yet packed with stories and dreams, too. When I was kid, my dad used to bring me to the library almost every Saturday. I remember checking out stacks of books for each week,  always the exact number allowed per person. Maybe that's why I relate to Roald Dahl's Matilda, who discovered life and love and happiness all within her local library. My biggest problem as an adult is lessened reading time, while still fighting the urge to bring home as many books as possible.

Of course, being an adult, I can afford to buy books now. And I do. But I find libraries are a great testing ground for books by new authors, or in unique formats (graphic novels or verse, for example), or even those I can't imagine I'd like, but which everyone's buzzing about. I discovered Holly Black's Curse Workers series at a library, Michelle Cooper's FitzOsborne books, Gail Tsukiyama's The Samurai's Garden (all of which I now own copies of!).

Actually, I discovered The Samurai's Garden (one of my favorite books, which not many people seem to have heard of!) through a Chicago Public Library book group. And that's another thing I love about libraries--some of the most intelligent book discussions I've ever encountered, frequent visiting authors, knowledgable librarians, and all those possibilities to challenge myself, and maybe even discover a new favorite book.

That's why I got annoyed at a recent save the libraries campaign in the UK (the government was even threatening to close the Great Missenden Library, Matilda's local library in Roald Dahl's novel--but thankfully it was saved!). Amongst other planned activities and protests, people were encouraged on a specific day to check tons of books out of their local library. It was a tangible demonstration, and we definitely should be vocal with our politicians about the need for libraries, but to me it felt an empty gesture. In my mind, the best way to support libraries is to use them regularly and to encourage others to do the same.

But then again, it's easy for me. I'm already a fan. Are you a library lover?

*Oh yeah, and that gorgeous picture (taken by my mother-in-law) is of my new local library, the Clapp Library in Belchertown, Mass. Lovely, huh?

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Storm stories

Well, after all sorts of dire predictions (last year's storm knocked out power to our building for 8 days! Halloween was canceled! Thousands didn't even have running water!), I made it through the latest storm without any problems. Gusts of wind whistled past, trees shook, the lights flickered--but that was as bad as it got.

Is it wrong to be a little disappointed? I was all stocked up with dry goods, flashlights, batteries, a radio. And after a morning madly writing, I spent Monday afternoon preparing for the power loss--I positioned flashlights around the house, got caught up on email, called my parents, even cleaned the bathroom (obviously not totally necessary, but it needed a clean, and I figured I'd rather do it with lights and running water). Then, by late Tuesday afternoon, when we still had power, I used the opportunity to watch several back episodes of Once Upon A Time. Then, still with power, I figured I might as well make an early dinner. Then there was Monday Night Football, and finally I went to bed. I woke up a few times during the night, but the clock digits were still glowing red.

Of course I'm completely grateful, and my thoughts and prayers go out to all of those who were much more adversely affected, those who lost loved ones, are injured, struggling with storm damage, and/or without power.

But when I woke Tuesday morning, still with electricity, I couldn't help feeling a little ripped off. I had had visions of reading and writing by candlelight, cuddling up with my husband, being forced to have conversations instead of watching TV. Not to mention, I've been thoroughly glued to Michelle Cooper's final book in her Montmaray Journals trilogy, The FitzOsbornes at War.*

I guess sometimes a little excitement (or free time!) is a good thing. And it got me thinking of past storms weathered, with more excitement and better stories.

When I was growing up, my family lived at the edge of a forest. I don't remember the storm, but I clearly remember the next morning, when I was out with the dog first thing, and saw a giant, old tree had fallen across our driveway. I was thrilled with the novelty and envisioning a day off school. I ran back inside to get my mom, telling her to look out the window.

"I can't see anything, my contacts aren't in yet," my mom grumbled.

"Oh, you'll see this," I told her. And she did.

Unfortunately, my mom wasn't having any of it. She told me and my sister to get ready for school. Then she drove across the front lawn, around the bulk of the tree, down into the ditch surrounding our property, and up over the scraggly branches at the tree's top to get onto the road. Such a disappointment!

My other favorite storm story is one I wasn't alive for, but which took place in the same house. It was right after Christmas, and the area had a severe ice storm. My parents lost power, and couldn't easily get out. And the only food in the house was a Christmas chocolate box. I love thinking of my parents being so young and unprepared--and gorging themselves on candy.

I hope all of you made it through the storm safely. Any good stories? Or, alternately, what storm stories have been passed through your family over the years?

*I should admit that I gave in to my disappointed self, and spent a blissful Tuesday afternoon finishing my book! And loved it! Highly recommended!