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Posts tagged ‘show don’t tell’

First Monday Mentoring for September – write characters who live for your readers

Welcome to the first Monday in September when I answer any questions you have about writing, and invite you to share your experiences as a published or emerging writer.

A couple of weeks ago I attended the annual conference of Romance Writers of Australia in Melbourne, among a record 400 attendees, about 100 being first timers. The enthusiasm level soared. Reunions were loud with much hugging, and we were blessed with outstanding keynote speakers including Graeme Simsion (The Rosie Project, The Rosie Effect), New York Times bestselling author of historical and contemporary romances, Mary Jo Putney, Dr. Anita Heiss (novelist and social commentator), American romance writer, Patricia McLinn and many, many more.

At the awards dinner I announced the winner of this year’s Valerie Parv Award – incidentally named by RWA, not by me, I suspect as a good way to make sure I keep turning up. Congratulations to all the winners and place getters. The winner couldn’t make the conference but we had a long phone chat later to welcome Canberra writer, Carly Main, to the ranks of the minions – as past winners dubbed themselves long before the movies.

Carly’s winning book is a Roman-set women’s novel with romantic elements. I’ll mentor her while she holds the award, and we plan on exploring the world of ancient Rome together. Coincidentally, one of my current projects has a similar background.

A key conference theme was that writers are also readers, or should be. And we need to put ourselves in the reader’s place just as we put ourselves into the POV (viewpoint) of key characters including the villains. These “book boyfriends” and “book girlfriends” as they’re called on Facebook can become as important to readers as their real life partners. No greater compliment can be paid a writer than to take our characters so much to heart.

A case in point is Graeme Simsion’s character of Don Tillman, the socially inept hero of The Rosie Project and The Rosie Effect.

With Graeme Simsion at the RWA Awards Dinner recently

With Graeme Simsion at the RWA Awards Dinner recently

To enable this process, we need to provide vivid character descriptions , not only in terms of eye colour, hair, height and build, but who they are as people. The old ‘show, don’t tell.’ By showing us their thoughts and interactions with other characters, you draw us as deeply into their world. The success of Graeme’s book – soon to be a major film – speaks for itself. I’ve just finished The Rosie Effect, and am awed by of how vividly he brings Don and Rosie to life.

As Graeme does, we need to take readers on a journey with our characters – soaring with them, sobbing along with them – living with them through the story so that if the character dies, we mourn their loss. These are tall orders but they are what draws readers in to our fiction again and again.

I remember as a young reader being heartbroken at the end of the Narnia stories, not wanting to leave that magical world. Likewise when I reached the end of H. Rider Haggard’s Allan Quatermain series, the final book supposedly “written” by another character following Quatermain’s death.

When Leonard Nimoy – Star Trek’s unemotional Mr. Spock – died in February this year, millions around the world mourned, marking the passing of a beloved character who will live long in fiction and film.
My dream – and it should be every fiction writer’s dream – is to create a character as enduring as any of these. To blur the line between fiction and reality in readers’ minds.

Actor, Leonard Nimoy, as the iconic character, Mr. Spock

Actor, Leonard Nimoy, as the iconic character, Mr. Spock

That means you’ve gone beyond characters to tell stories about people who live on outside your virtual play, even inspiring readers to write their own fanfic (fan fiction) about them.

IMO there’s no greater goal for a writer, and no greater achievement when you pull it off.
Share your thoughts in the comment box below. It’s moderated to avoid spam, but you can have your post appear right away by clicking on “sign me up” at right. I don’t share your details with anyone.

Happy writing,

Valerie

http://www.valerieparv.com
on Twitter @ValerieParv and Facebook
Check out Valerie’s online course, Free the Writer In You
At http://www.valerieparv.com/course.html

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5 ways to keep readers out of your story world

As a writer I’ve done all five things until I learned better, and so can you. Keeping readers out of your fictional world can be as simple as not giving them the information they need to “be there” with your characters. This idea arose out of Facebook, when I compared notes with friends about what advertising we were seeing. Depending on what pages they “liked” or commented on, some saw anti-aging and diet products, others saw cars and travel. One day I was invited to have “famous hair.” Go figure.

The point is, we don’t all see the world the same way. Most of us know this intellectually, when we need to get it at the gut level. How readers see and react to what we write depends on it. If we don’t all see the world the same way, or only see certain bits of it, how can we be sure our writing isn’t keeping readers out, when we want to draw them in and make them forget they’re reading something we made up?

Here are five ways readers can be shut out of our stories. See if you recognise any of them.

1. Use lazy words
Words like short, tall, old, young are lazy words. They represent our view of the world. In my workshops, ages go from teens to eighties. Asking who considers themselves old gets few hands in the air, except for the odd joker, usually someone younger than me. Old and young depend on your OWN age and the goal posts shift with each birthday. We’ve all heard toddlers call someone in their twenties old, while headlines say, “60 is the new 40.” The solution is to “show, don’t tell.” Simply put, this means show the reader what’s there, rather than tell them what to think. Wrinkled skin, thinning hair, stooped build can all suggest a mature character. Describe what’s there and leave the rest to us. Ditto tall. Show the character ducking under a doorframe, or their feet overhanging the bed. Show us the character in enough detail for us to draw our own conclusions.

We don't all see the same things on Facebook or in the world.

We don’t all see the same things on Facebook or in the world.

2. Don’t be consistent
Science fiction and fantasy are fun to write. You can imagine the world any way you want. But having set the rules, you must obey them from then on. No good having gravity turn off every day at noon for an hour, then forget next day and have characters sit down to lunch. Or turn blue-eyed Sandy into brown-eyed Susan between chapters. Characters need to be consistent as well. If Susan is thrifty because of a poverty-stricken background, don’t give her designer clothes without a good reason, a splurge she may feel guilty about, or a conscious decision to fight her conditioning.

3. Don’t get specific
I can’t mention a tree in my books without knowing the species, whether it’s in flower (which dictates the book’s season) and other details. I may not use them all in the narrative, but I need to know them. Through the magic of Google. I can find exactly the Russian swear word, unusual computer bug, or character illness I need to make the book work. It’s said that the best way to hide information is on page two of a Google search, but I’ve gone through twenty or more pages to find exactly what I need. Get specific and you will draw readers into your story world.

4. Don’t stretch yourself creatively
Whole blogs are written about the language used in romance novels. None of your prose should be in there. Avoid purple prose (over-written descriptions); cliched character actions – looking in a mirror while you describe them; misunderstandings where the heroine thinks the hero is kissing another woman. Heroine then storms out without waiting to learn the woman is his sister. First decide what you want the scene to achieve. If it’s to separate the characters while they discover they love each other, what’s the most original way to show this? I make lists, challenging myself to come up with twenty or more ways this could be achieved. The first few will be the cliches, the repetition, the boring. The next few will be wild flights of fantasy, then slowly I’ll get to the nuggets of gold. Sometimes two or more points can be combined to achieve my goal. This method has never failed me.

5. Don’t finish what you start
This is guaranteed to keep readers out of your story world, because the point of entry is the finished book. Whether on a device or in print, your book must be where readers can access it. Erica Jong famously said for a long time she avoided finishing anything. As long as it was work in progress, it couldn’t be rejected. Your book will never be perfect. Using the points here can get you a lot closer, but the last step – putting your story in front of an agent or editor – is essential. As a writer friend put it, “books in my head will never get read unless I get up and write them.”

Do any of these sound familiar to you? Do you keep readers out of your story world? How have you overcome these problems? Please leave a comment here.

Valerie

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http://www.valerieparv.com
on Twitter @ValerieParv and Facebook

Read some reviews already up at http://www.valerieparv.com/birthright.html

Are you growing as a writer?

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If you compare what you’re writing now with some of your earlier work, you should be able to see how far you’ve come. Certainly most writers will have made progress in areas of craft – such as being able to put words together more skilfully, and share story background with less “telling” and more “showing.”

You’ve probably also learned how to motivate your characters so they come across as real human beings with desires and goals we, as readers, can relate to.

But there are other kinds of growing writers can, and should, be doing.

Are you keeping up with trends?

This doesn’t mean slavishly imitating the current best-seller, whether it’s 50 shades of gratuitousness or the latest da vinci whatever. It means being aware of developments in the writing world. We know readers are increasingly reading our books on devices from ereaders to smart phones.

Have you seen how your chapters look on an iPhone? For more on this, check out “What’s Going on with Readers Today?” at http://toc.oreilly.com/2013/02/whats-going-on-with-readers-today.html

Some writers gloat about not understanding the electronic world and social media. Sure, it’s time consuming, occasionally time wasting, but that’s up to the user. When politicians are taking to social media in droves, you can be sure it’s because that’s where the voters are. Do you know where your readers are? Keeping up with them on social media makes perfect sense.

If you’ve been writing for some time, are you breaking new ground with your current work? 

Settling into a writing rut not only risks losing readers, it also bores the writer. Next time you write a scene that’s similar to what you’ve done before, challenge yourself to write it in a completely fresh way.

If you usually write novels, try a novella or a short story. Perhaps even some poetry. If you write in one genre, try reading in a few others to see if your voice would fit in any of them. Recently I ventured into digital-first publishing with my book, Birthright, a long novel that crossed over between romance and science fiction. No guarantees of success, but it’s a lot of fun and taking me in directions I’d almost forgotten I loved.

You can do this too. Try mixing up your romance with a dash of paranormal. Or your romantic suspense with a shot of inspirational. These days there are no limits to what a writer can try, and who knows, your little experiment may just catapult you into best-sellerdom. As a writer, what are you doing to keep your work fresh? Share your comments here.

Valerie

http://www.valerieparv.com

189650_437726069621804_1397664210_n

on Twitter @ValerieParv and Facebook

Read some reviews already up at http://www.valerieparv.com/birthright.html

 

 

 

“You’re still not fired” – more ways to hook a writing contest judge

Last week Warwick Capper looked stunned to hear the words, “You’re fired” from Mark Bouris on Nine Network’s “Celebrity Apprentice”.  As much as his lack of fund-raising results in the car wash challenge, I think Warwick’s ego trip was a bigger flaw. Who wouldn’t be turned off by his conviction that he was such a big celebrity,  rules didn’t apply to him?

In writing contests and even in submissions to editors, there are always “Warwick Capper” type writers who think rules are for everybody else. I’ve now read nearly eighty entries in the Writing Australia Unpublished Manuscript Award. Still a long way to go before we have a short list but patterns are emerging. As few as one in ten entrants either knows or researched what a synopsis involves. My friend and fellow writer, Julie Cohen, says a synopsis should “show the editor/agent/scout/reader/marketing department that the story is structurally sound, that it has conflict and events and a suitable ending.” Does telling a contest judge that this is the greatest work since (fill in famous author) or is an allegory about (fill in the gap) meet any of these requirements? To avoid hearing “you’re fired” after this, the work needs to be extraordinary. Sadly, if the synopsis starts off so…I have to say it…arrogantly, the work all too often follows. Some entries rise above a poor synopsis. They just have a harder time doing it.

In Apprentice’s art challenge, the women’s team described their “hands” photo as “beautifully simple and all about connecting.” This also sums up the best writing. A clever idea that’s simply told and connects with readers is more likely to stay in the game than a showy piece full of big words, footnotes and obscure concepts.

I don’t mean you can’t tackle big issues. Would War and Peace be considered such an important work of literature if Tolstoy had taken a bird’s eye view of the French-Russian conflict instead of focusing on the lives of five aristocratic families? And entries in the WA Award do explore some important issues. But the most effective are shown through the characters’ eyes, rather than being told from the writer’s godlike viewpoint. Show, don’t tell, is a vital writing skill to master. As with Celebrity Apprentice, you need to paint word pictures that bring your story to life, letting readers feel as if they’re experiencing the events first-hand rather than being told about them by the author.

As I pointed out last time, we need to feel we “know” your characters before we’re involved in their dramas. On Apprentice we’re shown what really matters to the celebrities through the charities they’re working for.

Give us a sense of time and place before plunging into dramatic action.

Who's the boss? Mark Bouris, centre, with the celebs. Photo: Sydney Morning Herald

It’s no coincidence that the boardroom set of Apprentice is a replica of “Mr. Bouris’s” actual boardroom, down to the Sydney Harbour views. Being in his familiar high-powered environment adds to Mark Bouris’s air of seriousness and authority. We know who’s boss even before he utters the fatal words.

Whether you’ve entered the WA Award or are submitting to an agent or publisher, you can dodge these words yourself by following some industry rules. As with the celebrities, luck plays a part, but a much smaller one than we often think.

Valerie

http://www.valerieparv.com

On Twitter @valerieparv

and Facebook

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