Posts Tagged ‘writing advice’

Show Don’t Tell – Rewritten Scenes Part 1

July 29, 2010

Show, don’t tell.  Show, don’t tell. Repeat after me, please.

This has been the story of my life for the past few months as I have struggled to take the advice of an excellent and generous literary agent (read all about her here: http://fineprintlit.com/about-the-agents/suzie-townsend/).  Her biggest comment was about one of the most common first-time author mistakes: telling rather than showing what happens in your story.  I’ve decided to post, over the next couple of weeks, a few excerpts of scenes that I’ve rewritten in my WIP as a result of her advice as well as the advice of other literary agents via their blogs.

Example 1:  Reading a book about the Battle for Allyria

Context:  After being transported from modern-day America to the medieval world of Allyria, main character Lex is traveling with the handsome warrior Ash as he seeks to help save his homeland from barbarian invaders.  Lex shows him a book she has found about an ancient battle between their ancestors and the same enemy.

Before:  “Come look, Lex,” he said softly, completely absorbed in the book, and my depression melted.  I spread out my bedroll and lay next to him on my stomach.  I looked where he pointed, and he explained what the diagram meant, and how the plan that Elendor and Maia had made for the battle was flawed, and resulted in the burning of part of the city.

Together that evening, in our little refuge, by the glow of a single candle, we learned all about the Battle for Allyria, and wondered aloud how we could learn from their plan, including the things they did right as well as their mistakes, to protect Archam from attack.  Even though I had read this book before, it was all new to me as seen through Ash’s eyes.  Viewing the book’s illustrations from the perspective of a person who had been in battles and who understood military tactics, I was able to understand more than I had reading on my own.  He explained things so well, not impatiently, not patronizingly, just simply and frankly.  From there, it was an easy matter to continue talking about all manner of things.  It seemed that once our tongues were loosened, we had no trouble keeping the conversation going.  It was probably well after midnight before we blew out the candle and fell asleep.

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The problem:  Oh my, where do I start?  Once it was pointed out to me that I was telling instead of showing, scenes like this began jumping off the page at me.  I had just been lazy, lazy, lazy.  It’s so much easier to tell about a conversation than to choose the exact words your characters will say.  My new mantra: if it advances the plot, it’s worth showing through dialogue and gestures; if it doesn’t, it should be cut out completely.  Here’s how I rewrote it.

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After:  “Come look, Lex,” he said softly, completely absorbed in the book, and my depression melted into something warm and glowing in my chest.  I spread out my bedroll and lay next to him on my stomach.  I looked where he pointed.  The book’s hand-inked parchment glowed in the candlelight.

“See how the Varangians were able to surprise them and gain the walls?  The people of the city were trapped, Lex.  We can’t let that happen in Archam.”

“How will you stop it?” My voice in my ears sounded gentler than usual, and I hoped he didn’t notice.

He waved a hand across the page.  “Archam’s defenses are different.  Our bridges will prevent an attack from the river, and our walls and towers are higher and stronger.”

“Won’t people still be trapped inside the walls, though?”

He gazed at me for a moment, the candlelight reflected in his eyes.  “Yes, I suppose you’re right.  You and I will have to think of a way to prevent that from happening.”

As he went on about the weapons the Varangians had brought and the primitive ways the Marrocans had fought them off, I hardly heard him.  A flush went through me.  You and I, he had said.  The candle threw the planes of his face into sharp relief; as I gazed at the spark of light in his eyes, the warmth spread through me.

It was well after midnight before we said goodnight and moved to opposite sides of the shelter.  A tiny flame of something continued to flicker inside me long after the candle was extinguished.

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Please let me know if you like the rewrite and have additional suggestions!

Advice from a Literary Agent

March 28, 2010

I have received some extremely valuable feedback from a literary agent I know, who very kindly read my entire Allyria manuscript and e-mailed me six pages of suggestions.  All I can say is, “Wow.”  I have spent the last ten days digesting the feedback and thinking about the main comments she had and how to fix them, and I’m just about ready to dive back into the manuscript.  Here are the major pieces of advice she gave:

Show, don’t tell.  Her biggest concern was the many places in the manuscript where it was “all tell, no show.”  Everyone knows this one, right?  And yet still I made this mistake.  She provided me with numerous examples where I’ve done this.  I had already identified this as a problem as I read other books in YA (see previous posts) and the specific examples she provided will help me immensely as I re-read and edit on this next round.  Now that this has been pointed out to me, I am fully confident that I can fix this trait in my writing.  (25 years of writing and rewriting for business will help me here.)

Provide closure to the ending , even if it’s an ongoing series.  Another concern which she mentioned was the unsatisfying ending.  “Even if you are [planning a sequel/series], there needs to be more closure – most books won’t sell unless they can stand alone.”  I have spent a lot of time thinking about how I can make this more satisfying and bring a little more closure.  Yes, this is just Book I, so I can’t resolve everything at the end of this book, but I can totally bring some of what happens at the beginning of Book II and put it in Book I.  At least some more of the questions will be answered, and that will also satisfy the directive of “show, don’t tell.”

No vivid details.  Another suggestion was the lack of vivid details to bring the fantasy setting to life.  Again, lots of examples that will be so helpful.  Here’s one example she gave.  ” ‘The setting for this stage of our journey couldn’t have been more beautiful. The desert was dazzling’ can be cut, because the next sentences show us the desert’s beauty.”  Wow.   I was so worried about word count that I didn’t stop to consider whether one uninspired sentence of generic description could be replaced with two or three sentences that told how the setting impacted my narrator’s senses.  This will be a fun challenge for me to fix, as I struggle to bring the Allyria in my head to the page.

Plot inconsistencies.  The category that I appreciated the most, because it was so surprising and eye-opening for me, was the plot inconsistencies that she identified.  The first one made me laugh out loud, because I had never even considered it.  It involved a character knowing something really important, but dying and leaving only a cryptic message about it that took the MC the rest of the book to decipher.  Her point was, if this character knew this information, why didn’t she send a message to someone as soon as she learned it?  Why indeed?  This and another comment are leading me to restructure this part of the story.  More mystery, more agony, less certainty.  No one is going to know everything, and only Lex will be able to put the pieces together.  Even the advice about those inconsistencies I thought I had fixed was valuable, because perception is reality when it comes to the reader.

There were a variety of other comments, all of which I agree with and will take seriously.  The funny thing is, she didn’t mention as problems the things I was most worried about in my previous rounds of editing — pacing, cutting backstory, and word count (although she did identify a few places where I told too much and took too many words to do it).  I guess that’s good news that my previous editing apparently fixed some of these glaring problems.  Now I can move forward with the next round of edits and make the story better.

She also mentioned two strengths that really warmed my heart — she liked my strong but flawed fantasy heroine, and she liked the romance between the heroine and hero.  These are the parts of my story I liked the best too, so I’m a happy camper.

I realize I am very lucky to have someone so knowledgeable take time to read the manuscript and give me such great advice.  Now it’s time to act on it!  As I write this, I am growing excited to dive back in and tackle the manuscript again.  I’m going in!