Learning From The Masters: On Subtlety

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So I want to talk about one of my favorite things in fiction…

Subtlety.

I’ve already written about how one of my biggest pet peeves in books is showing and telling. I also wrote a post on how to not do that. 

I think the best novels are ones that show you everything that’s happening–then leave it to you, the reader, to draw your own conclusions. Books like this treat you like you’re smart–the author knows they don’t have to spell everything out for you.

There is one writer I know of who does this exceptionally well, but the example I’m going to give is kind of a big spoiler for this book. So I’m not going to tell you which book or writer it is. I’ve also omitted character names.

For background info: in this novel, a female detective is investigating the murder of a pregnant woman. Earlier on, she finds a notebook where the murdered woman had kept track of her monthly cycles. The detective also hints about a past tryst with a coworker that left her feeling kind of empty, to put it mildly. These people also live in a country where abortion is illegal.

And then, near the end of the novel, we get this passage:

I’m not her, I’m not clockwork, specially not when I’m wrecked and stressed and wretched. By the time the terrible sinking feeling kicked in, I had moved to Domestic Violence, he had been bounced into bureaucratic limbo somewhere and all our bridges were burned to bitter ash; he had gone so far away I couldn’t even see him on the other side. I didn’t tell anyone. I got the boat to England before dawn one sleety Saturday and was back in my dark flat that night—the plane would have been faster but I couldn’t take it, the thought of sitting still for an hour each way, squashed elbow to elbow between strangers. I walked up and down the deck of the boat instead. On the way back the sleet came down harder, soaked me to the bone; if there had been anyone else on deck they would have thought I was crying, but I wasn’t, not even once.

In case you didn’t get it, this character is telling you that she got pregnant as a result of her tryst of her coworker, and then elected to get an abortion.

But at no point in this narrative–or anywhere in the novel–does the character state “I had an abortion.” Instead, the author takes what you already know about that character and the story and presents you with this scene of the detective on a boat on a sleety dark day–and leaves you to figure out exactly what it was that happened.

Of course, not stating things outright means there are some readers who won’t get it. For example, in discussions forums for the above book, some people wrote they had no idea this character had had an abortion. But that’s why it’s so important to read closely (especially in detective novels).

I’m definitely going to be incorporating this into my own writing. How about you?

Image found here

Improve Your Writing: On Filter Phrases

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Today I want to talk about something very small that can improve your writing in a big way….

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Learning from the Masters: Voice

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So I’ve written a lot about what we can learn from the masterful writers who’ve come before us, focusing mainly on the first 250 words of the manuscript. Today I want to focus on something else: voice.

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Improve Your Writing: Show and Tell

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I think Mondays are a good day for a quick writing lesson, don’t you? At the beginning of the work week I’m (usually) in a productive mindset. So going forward, on Mondays I’m going to be sharing some little tips that can improve your writing in a big way.

First up: On how (and why) not to show and tell

I’ve written about this before, because it’s my biggest pet peeve and such a clear marker of an amateur writer. I used to do it myself. I see it in first drafts. I even see it in published novels. And all I can think is: ARGH.

Show and tell is when you show your reader something and then, just in case they’re super dense, also tell them what’s going on. As a reader, I hate being pandered to that way. And as a writer, it makes me cringe. When you imply something, you don’t need to then state it outright.

An example of showing and telling:

“Don’t eat that,” I say. “It’s too hot.”

Cara looks right at me, as if taunting me, then ignores my advice and takes a bite of her pizza anyway. A moment later, she spits it out, fanning her mouth. Clearly, it was hot.

I smile, pleased I was right.

Compare that to:

“Don’t eat that,” I say. “It’s too hot.”

Cara looks right at me and takes a bite of her pizza. A moment later, she spits it out, fanning her mouth.

I smile.

Do you see how much better the second one is?

You don’t need to tell your reader that Cara is ignoring the narrator’s advice and then taunting her–you’ve already shown her doing those things. You don’t need to tell the reader the pizza’s hot–Cara’s actions imply this. Also, anytime you use the world “clearly”, that’s a red flag that you probably don’t need that sentence at all. Finally, you don’t need to tell your reader the narrator is pleased–the fact that she smiles is enough.

When you apply this to your own writing, it becomes tighter and just overall better.

Image from a broken link–if anyone has the source, please let me know!

Writing Inspiration: Quotes

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As a writer, I’m constantly asked: “Where do you get your ideas?”

I can’t say where my ideas come from. From life, from other stories, from the interests I’ve naturally developed over time … They start out as a vague idea (nostalgia!) and then develop out from there (a teenage girl, World War II, a chateau with secrets…) Most of the time I just have bunches of ideas that only get fleshed out as I write (I’m not an outliner).

In the beginning, I like to collect quotes that inspire me and have something to do with the theme and tone of the book I’m trying to write. Does anyone else do that? So I thought it would be fun to share the quotes I currently have at the top of my Word document work-in-progress. See if you can guess where they’re from:

1. “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?”

2. “Over time, the ghosts of things that happened start to turn distant; once they’ve cut you a couple of million times, their edges blunt on your scar tissue, they wear thin. The ones that slice like razors forever are the ghosts of things that never got the chance to happen.”

3. “You can throw yourself away, missing what you’ve lost.”

4. “But don’t you think it’s better to be extremely happy for a short while, even if you lose it, than to be just okay for your whole life?”

5. “All of them, all except Phineas, constructed at infinite cost to themselves these Maginot Lines against this enemy they thought they saw across the frontier, this enemy who never attacked that way—if he ever attacked at all; if he was indeed the enemy.”

6. “The point was for one place in their lives to be impregnable. For just one kind of love to be stronger than any outside thing; to be safe.”

7. “Does such a thing as ‘the fatal flaw,’ that showy dark crack running down the middle of a life, exist outside literature? I used to think it didn’t. Now I think it does.”

8. “I suppose at one time in my life I might have had any number of stories, but now there is no other. This is the only story I will ever be able to tell.”

9. “They know that tragedy is not glamorous. They know it doesn’t play out in life as it does on a stage or between the pages of a book. It is neither a punishment meted out nor a lesson conferred. Its horrors are not attributable to one single person. Tragedy is ugly and tangled, stupid and confusing. That is what the children know.”

(Answers below. Photo found here.)

1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8. 9.

Novel Interruptus

It’s time to talk about Novel Interruptus. I found this ingenious term on another writing blog and now I can’t remember which one, so if you know, please tell me so I can give the author credit.

Novel Interruptus is the term for the inevitable break in your writing flow during the holidays, which is something I think a lot of us experience. No matter how many years in a row I resolve to wake up early and write before I’m sucked into present wrapping, cookie decorating, or gift returning, I never do it. The holidays are just too filled with people and activities for me to get much time to myself.

So! How to get back into that writing groove you were in before all the mulled wine and candy canes muddled your brain? Here are the steps I take:

1. Reread I normally advise against too much rereading of what you’ve already written–before you know it, you get sucked into your beautiful prose and you’re spending your precious writing time reading instead of writing. But if it’s been a few days (or a week) since you’ve so much as glanced at your manuscript, you need to read through at least the part you were working on to get back into the mindset of your setting and characters. I’ve also found a quick reread of the beginning and any key scenes helps, too.

2. You don’t have to pick up where you left off Most likely, you stopped mid-scene or chapter. It can be hard to get back into the exact mindset you were in at that point–so don’t! Pick up the story again at whatever point feels natural for you.

3. Look through your notes Not every single one you’ve ever taken, but I’ve found the ones I’ve jotted down recently to be the most helpful. Even if I’m not working on my novel constantly during the holidays, I am thinking about it (and you should be too). In between present-opening, I’ll be jotting down thoughts or bits of dialogue in the notes section of my phone. These notes help immensely when starting back up again.

4. Pick a section and just dive in! I write in a somewhat roundabout fashion–thank God for computers, I don’t know how people write longhand–so after taking the above steps, I just start writing again. Don’t think too hard or long about it–time you spend thinking is time you don’t spend writing, after all.

5. Don’t feel guilty There are probably people out there who’d advise you to skip family time in lieu of writing. I am not one of them. Spending time with the people you care about is more important than your burgeoning writing career. Don’t feel bad about that.

6. Stick to your New Year’s Writing Resolutions (provided they were measurable and manageable) For me, I’ve upped my writing word count goals to 11,000 words per week. I’ve found that a weekly schedule works better than a daily schedule, since there are inevitable days when I’m swamped at work and I’ll fall behind, but that just means I have Saturday and Sunday to devote to several-hour writing frenzies. I’m happy to report that 2 weeks into 2015, I’ve exceeded my writing word count goals each and every week!

Does anyone else have any tips for dealing with Novel Interruptus? I’d love to hear them!

Above photo found on Pinterest with no link to it. If you know the source, please let me know in the comments.