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What I would have said, part 2

Note: this is part 2 of answers to a set of interview questions from an interview I didn’t end up doing. Read part 1 here.

What does it really mean to ‘show don’t tell’ and how does a writer DO this?

That’s actually a very deep and involved subject. I could begin to do justice to it were I to dedicate an entire blog post to it. Which, come to think of, I kind of did when I guest-blogged for Seekerville last year. So you can read that.

In a really tiny nutshell, though, it is this: you remember back in grade school and high school how English teachers were always admonishing you to “read between the lines”? Personally, I always hated that because I had no idea what they meant when they said that. Now I understand that my teachers just didn’t know how to explain the difference between showing and telling.

When they said “read between the lines,” what they were really saying was “this writer did a really good job of showing, and because of that, there’s a lot we can tell about the people and the story even though it’s not stated directly.” Here’s an example. Imagine you knew everything you currently know about life, literature, and popular culture except that you had somehow remained 100% oblivious to the very existence of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Now someone hands you the book, tells you nothing, and says “read.” What does Jane Austen give you? This:

> It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

That’s showing. How do we know? Because without telling us what it is, we already know what the major theme of the book is. Had Jane Austen been given to telling instead of showing, she might have penned this instead:

> This, dear reader, is a romance novel.

One is showing: Jane Austin gives us the evidence we need, straight away, to deduce a’la Sherlock Holmes, that this book is a romance. But never does she tell us that fact flat-out.

Telling is when you directly state the deep truths you want readers to know. Showing is when you don’t, when you never do, but instead only give the evidence readers need to figure out those deep truths for themselves. That’s what “Show, don’t tell” means. It’s the flip-side of “read between the lines,” because showing is how you put anything between the lines in the first place.

Why should a writer hire a book doctor rather than asking friends, family, teachers, and critique partners to edit their book?

Well, why do you go to a medical doctor instead of asking friends, family, teachers, and critique partners tell you what to do about that persistent rash? Because there’s a difference between saying “Yup, looks like a rash,” and saying “That rash is a symptom of anemia caused by underlying kidney disease. We’d better get you on a low protein diet and talk about lifestyle changes.”

You hire a book doctor because, while readers are common, trained analytical readers are not. Friends, family, teachers, mothers, et cetera—even if they’re avid readers—usually don’t have the analytical skills to actually diagnose your writing. Untrained readers, those who simply love to read, are great at telling you what they don’t like. They’re great at telling you when something isn’t working for them.

But they’re usually lousy at telling you exactly why that something isn’t working for them, in such a way that you can see what to do about it. It’s feedback, but it’s not helpful feedback. Telling you “I didn’t like that part where the car breaks down on the bridge” isn’t so-called actionable feedback. It doesn’t tell you what to do about it. It’s “Yup, looks like a rash,” all over again, leaving you no wiser as to whether you should put lotion on it or change your diet.

Sadly (though not for me, because otherwise I couldn’t make a living doing what I do), even most writers are lousy at this. Even most writers, as I discovered when I started seeking out constructive feedback for my own novels, are no better at critiquing than non-writers.

You don’t go to a book doctor for an “I liked it” or “I hated it” verdict. You go to a book doctor for a diagnosis and prescription. You go to a book doctor because you want your novel’s rash to actually get better.

What advice would you offer to new authors?

There are hundreds of fiddly little bits of advice I could give to new readers, none more worthy than the others. And you already asked about “Show, don’t tell,” so I can’t use that (though I would). I guess what I would say is this:

Recognize that this is a hard thing you’re doing, and check your ego at the door.

The thing is, a well written novel is a deceptive thing. When done right, a novel flows past the reader so smoothly, so effortlessly, readers don’t really even feel like they’re reading. They’re just enjoying a great story. A great novel is such a transparent, transcendent reading experience, that readers don’t feel like they’re doing any work at all. Though in fact their brains are working quite hard, every second, it feels so easy that we’re left thinking that it must also be easy to write one.

Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s easy, relatively speaking, to nail some old roller-skate wheels onto a couple of boards and call it a go-kart. And it’ll go, but you’re in for a pretty rough ride. Just getting around the block is going to leave you winded. It is worlds more difficult to build a 450 horsepower V8 high performance luxury sedan that rides like a dream and will take you from Boston to Chicago with less effort than that once around the block on the go-kart.

I doubt I need to unpack this metaphor for you. Suffice it to say writing novels is hard. You will need to learn a lot of new skills, both in writing craft and story craft. You will need to discover that story craft is, in fact, a wholly different skill set than writing craft. You will make a lot of mistakes along the way. This is inevitable.

But if you go into it thinking you’re God’s own gift to literature, and nobody can tell you anything about your story, and how dare they try to influence your artistic genius with their cookie cutter notions about conflict and character arcs and raising the stakes and showing versus telling—

Well, let’s just say if you go into it with that attitude I can promise you something else that will happen: not only will your writing suck—that hardly makes you special—but you will also never improve.

It’s just plain hard to write a novel. You need criticism. You need feedback. But all the helpful feedback in the world won’t do you a lick of good if your ego is blocking you from hearing it.

August 15, 2013 04:08 UTC

Tags: interview, book doctor, show don't tell, evidence, critique, analysis, diagnosis, feedback, advice, ego, writing, writing craft, story, story craft

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What I would have said, part one

Recently, I was approached to do an interview about book doctoring. As mine is a poorly understood corner of the editing world, I was delighted for the opportunity. Unfortunately, the interview didn’t work out. The reasons are neither here nor there, but the questions they wanted to ask me were good ones, and I’d still like to answer them. So, without further ado:

What is a book doctor?

It’s a clever moniker for “freelance developmental editor.” Which basically means I write book reports for a living. Extremely long, excruciatingly technical book reports, designed to help aspiring authors produce a much stronger next-draft of their novel.

When in the writing process should an author engage a book doctor?

Well, there’s the ideal, and then there’s the practical.

Ideally, people would contact me while they’re still outlining their book. Think about it this way: the easiest time to fix issues with the plot is before you’ve actually written the story. Once the story is set down word by laborious word, it becomes much harder to change. Fixing plot problems at that stage means maybe moving a scene here or there, adding a bridge scene, tweaking a few details.

That’s if you’re lucky. Far more commonly, though, fixing a plot issue means changing something deep in the bones of the story. It means altering characters, events, motivations, or other details which demand updates to many scenes. It can mean ripping out whole chunks of the book to re-draft some section of the plot. Worst case—but by no means a rare case—it means admitting that while the core story idea may be good, the plot as it stands is too much of a mess to fix, and then writing a new one from scratch.

Maybe that’s fine if you don’t have to worry about the concerns of making a living and tending to family. But the preponderance of writers I know do have to worry about those things. So ideally, you’ll get your plot problems worked out beforehand, and save yourself vast time and labor fixing problems that could have been avoided.

(And yes, what I just wrote amounts to a pro-plotter, anti-pantser screed. I’m not trying to dismiss the pantsers in the audience. It is certainly possible to fly by the seat of your pants and yet end up with a plot that holds together. But it is also true that the worst, most haphazard, nonsensical plots I’ve ever seen from clients have come from clients who don’t plot ahead of time.)

That’s the ideal. But in practice, almost nobody contacts me while they’re still outlining. Normally, people pop into my inbox only after they have manuscript in hand. That’s fine too. Generally that means you’ll be doing more rewriting than you might have liked, but it beats giving up on the novel. In my experience, the writers who succeed are the ones who don’t give up.

What makes for a good plot?

If I were to name anything specific (Conflict! Drama! ’Splosions!), someone would inevitably criticize that answer as being applicable only in certain genres. And they’d be right. There’s only one thing I know of that makes for a good plot, no matter what genre you’re writing in. Only one plotting principle that genuinely stands up whether you’re writing an action packed thriller, a cozy mystery, a memoir, or even a quiet, introspective literary piece:

Questions.

A good story is one that constantly raises questions in the reader’s mind. Curiosity, that human drive to know, to figure out, is at the heart of why readers engage with a book. If your narrative is constantly making us wonder about stuff—big stuff, little stuff—chances are we’ll be interested, and will keep turning those pages. After all, how else will we find the answers?

A small question—who’s ringing the doorbell? Who’s on the phone?—might only propel us a few sentences or maybe a paragraph further. That’s fine. That’s all it needs to do. A larger question can drive us to the end of the scene or chapter. The biggest questions—whodunit? Will James Bond save the world for democracy yet again?—those are the questions that propel whole stories.

A good plot provides a lot of questions, and then answers them when the time is right. A great plot does the same, but carefully manages the questions so that by the time one question has been answered, something else has come along to take its place. Or several things. A great plot weaves questions and answers together into a complex, rich pattern that keeps the reader totally hooked until the very end. Or even into a sequel…

What do new writers often need the most help with?

Two basic areas. Writing craft, and story craft.

Writing craft is all the stuff having to do with how you put words together into sentences. It’s about writing beautiful prose. New writers, no matter how much they wrote in school, almost always have a lot to learn in this area. So do I. It’s an endless art, and I’m convinced it is always possible to improve one’s writing. Usually, the greater fraction of my developmental editing reports are devoted to helping writers see things in their writing that aren’t so great, and explaining how to fix them.

From my own perspective, I’ve been writing novel-length fiction for close to a decade now. I’m a lot better than I used to be. Spending my days analyzing my clients’ writing and explaining to them how to improve it has certainly helped make me a better writer too. But even now, I still find new things in my clients’ manuscripts that help me understand the craft of writing better. It never ends. Nor, I think, should it. How sad would it be, to know you could not be better than you are?

Story craft is the other side of the novelist’s coin. It’s everything having to do with constructing a great plot. Raising questions is part of it, but it’s also about setups and events and conflicts and character motivations and surprises. All that stuff.

But here’s the thing. Most new writers don’t understand that writing craft and story craft are distinct crafts. They are wholly separate skill sets. I’ve seen beautiful prose wrapped around some truly awful plots. And I’ve seen the clumsiest prose imaginable hiding a corker of a plot inside. Just because you can write doesn’t mean you can tell a story.

Most writers don’t understand this. And really, why should they? When, in most of our lives, are we ever exposed to story craft as a distinct skill? Not in grade school or high school, that’s for sure. Or at least, not in the dark ages of the 1980s when I was in school. Essay structure? Sure. Story structure? Not so much. Thus, another healthy chunk of my developmental editing reports are devoted to helping writers see what is and isn’t working in their plot, and offering suggestions for how to fix it.

Click here for part two

August 09, 2013 03:58 UTC

Tags: interview, book doctor, plot, plotting, outline, curiosity, questions, writing, writing craft, story, story craft

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PNWA Day 3: There's something about Mary

For me, day 3 of the annual PNWA Summer Writers Conference was much like day two: back-to-back (times eleven) sessions with the writers whose works I was critiquing.

I got the day off to kind of a poor start by being late for the first appointment. Oops! What can I say; 8:00 AM is darned early to start, and yesterday the first one was at 8:20. I didn’t think to check my schedule for a different start time today. My bad. The scheduled client was really nice about it, though, and was happy to reschedule her consultation during one of my slotted breaks.

Like yesterday, I got to meet and talk with a bunch of interesting people who I would otherwise never have had the chance to interact with. But all morning, I was looking forward to one consultation in particular. This mystery writer, I knew only by the name Mary and by her writing. I couldn’t wait to meet her because her 25 page submission was, hands down, the flat-out best piece of writing I’ve seen outside of print in ... you know what? I can’t think of an unpublished piece of writing I’ve encountered that was better. Not one, and I’ve seen quite a bit. Mary wins.

The thing about Mary is that her writing has got voice. That elusive quality that sets great writers apart from the crowd. It’s the thing that, like former Attorney General Edwin Meese said about pornography, “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.” Mary reached into her subconscious, found a heartbreakingly poignant character named Lil with an incredible life story, and channeled Lil straight onto the page. I have never seen such a strong voice in an unpublished writer before in my life.

So when Mary’s time slot rolled around, in walked someone I’d never have expected: the sweetest little old lady you ever met. I didn’t ask how old she was. It didn’t matter. She sat down, an anxious look on her face. I told her how much I had been looking forward to meeting her. She softened a bit. I told her how I felt about her writing. How beautiful and wonderful it was. She smiled. Her anxiety melted away. She wiped a tear from under one eye.

Writers invest so much of themselves in their writing. Eyes may be the windows to everyone else’s soul, but ink is the window into a writer’s soul. Mary’s soul is there in her writing for all to see. When she sat down at my table, all I could see in her eyes was how much of herself she felt was riding on my opinion.

I’m not quite sure how I feel about that. I am so pleased that I was able to replace her nervousness with validation, send her off with the confidence in her ability that she so richly deserves. But I’ve seen the same look on other faces, too, that same desperate hope for validation, from writers for whom my honest assessment of their work cannot be so glowing. I feel obligated to tell them the truth about their writing as I see it, but at the same time I struggle to do so in a way that encourages them forward. I know that if I deliver the feedback in the wrong way, they’ll leave crushed and never write again. That’s not the goal. I don’t think I want that kind of power over people. I just want to help them.

I hope my feedback helped Mary. And I hope I get to read the rest of her book and work whatever iota of magic I can on it. The economy is hard for all of us lately, and especially on sweet little old ladies with home decorating businesses who can’t find clients right now. Mary told me she can’t pay me. I told her I didn’t care. I’ll work on her book for free if I have to. I just want to read the end of it, and for a little while bask in the glow of amazing writing that I, lucky stiff that I am, have gotten to see before anyone else. I hope she lets me.

August 02, 2009 05:14 UTC

Tags: PNWA, conference, book doctor, feedback, confidence, voice, power, validation

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PNWA Day Two: I met the airline safety card guy

Day two of the annual PNWA Summer Writers Conference. I probably did more talking in one single day than I have done in years, and it’ll be a miracle if my voice holds up for tomorrow, but I survived.

I got to play both sides of the fence today: as conference Book Doctor helping aspiring writers learn how to strengthen their books, and as an aspiring writer myself pitching my books to a couple of literary agents. One of my consultations today was with the guy who claims—with some merit, I would say—to be the most widely distributed illustrator on the planet. He’s the guy who illustrates those fold-out safety cards in the back pocket of every airline seat in the world. You know that iconic drawing of the mother with her oxygen mask already in place, helping her child put on the day-glo yellow mask? He did that, and all the rest of them. He and his wife run a whole company that does that. His art is literally all over the world. His art has probably saved lives. How cool is that?

The Book Doctoring is fun. I have to admit, it’s fun, and not just because you meet people who save lives through technical illustration. There were two consultations I did today that I was worried about, because the material was very weak. But my hat is off to the writers, because they brought absolutely the right attitude to the table: a genuine desire to learn, and the maturity to set their ego aside in order to do that. All nine of the writers I spoke with today were that way, really. It’s hard not to have fun when you get to have nine in-depth conversations about a subject you love all in the same day. In the end, everybody left my table knowing what they need to do to put their books in a publishable state, or if not that, at least to take their writing to the next level.

In a nutshell, that’s is the great part about my job. Being able to do that for people is a very satisfying thing indeed.

In the middle of the day I had a break to go pitch my stuff to some agents. The first person I talked with was David Forrer of Inkwell Management. We had a great talk about the young-adult western adventure novel I wrote in 2007. He also suggested that his agency likes to work with freelance book editors like me, so we traded business cards and that was a nice bonus.

The second person I pitched to was Minju Chang, of Bookstop Literary Agency. I actually pitched to her at last year’s conference, so it was nice to see her again. She’s very friendly, and does a great job of putting nervous writers at ease so we can tell her about our books. She wasn’t so keen on the sci-fi novel I pitched her, but she had good feedback for me.

Like Robert Dugoni says, somewhere on my Quotes Page, all of us can always improve our writing. That goes for book doctors too.

I spent the afternoon in consultations with the rest of the day’s clients, one of whom I have been looking forward to talking with for a couple of weeks, ever since I reviewed her submission. (Stephanie, if you’re reading this, I mean you!) I was doubly impressed to learn it was her first novel. First novels (and especially first drafts of first novels) usually have a lot less going for them than hers did. I hope I get to read the rest of the book someday. (Stephanie, if you’re reading this, use that discount code and hire me!)

The evening finished off with dinner in the big ballroom and a keynote speech by thriller-writer Joseph Finder (that’s with a short-i, not a long-i). He gave what is a semi-stock speech for this kind of conference, the “story of how I made it as a writer” speech. But it was a great speech, because he brought a lot of fresh and very funny angles to it from his personal experiences. That man has led an interesting life.

But for me, the capper to the day came right at the very end. All day, here and there, people have been talking with me in the halls to ask more about how I could help them, and after the speech ended, the desserts had vanished, and the scheduled activities ended for the day, I found myself in yet another such conversation with an eager, first-time writer. In the middle of this, conference organizer and PNWA president Pam Binder came up to me and asked if I could help her out.

She said that one of the book doctor clients, who had been assigned to a different person than me, had received a very short and unsatisfactory consultation, and hadn’t felt like he had gotten his money’s worth. Now remember, these people have paid extra to the conference (not to us, alas!) for these book doctor sessions, and many of them have come from quite a long ways off. I’ve got people on my list from Washington D.C., Florida, all over. This half-hour consultation is a big deal for them, because it represents time, money, a lot of effort, in the hopes of getting something of a road-map for where to take their writing career next; to not get that must have been a huge let-down.

Pam looked at me and asked if I could possibly do anything to help.

I looked at her and said “Of course.” So the person will e-mail their material to me, and I’ll give them a do-over. I’m happy to, because whoever they are, and whether their book is awesome or still needs a lot of work, they deserve their money’s worth.

That was the capper for me because Pam, someone I highly respect in the universe of Seattle writing, looked to me for help. I get a lot of positive feedback from the people I’ve done consultations for here at the conference, and from my paying clients as well, but to get a vote of confidence like that from Pam, well, that really left me smiling as I made my way out of the hotel for the evening.

August 01, 2009 06:21 UTC

Tags: PNWA, conference, book doctor, feedback, confidence, David Forrer, Minju Chang, Joseph Finder, Pam Binder, Robert Dugoni

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PNWA Summer Writers Conference, Day 1

Well, I survived day one.

The 54th annual Summer Writers Conference, hosted by the Pacific Northwest Writers Association, is in full swing! I had a wonderful time there last year as one attendee among many. I’m at the conference this year as a “Book Doctor” (that is, a editor who can tell you how to improve the writing and story-craft in your novel) rather than a starry-eyed hopeful novelist. Despite experiencing the conference from a different perspective, if today is any guide, this year I will also have a wonderful time.

I will, however, probably be twice as exhausted at the end of it as I was last year

Today was a half-day, with registration opening at 1:00, and conference sessions scheduled until the evening. I checked in a little before 1:00, and learned that not only was I going to be speaking on a panel of other book doctors who are also working the conference, the organizers also volunteered me to be the panel moderator. I suspect this is what I get for being the only local boy in the bunch, someone the organizers could be pretty sure would actually show up on time.

After checking in, I talked with three writers who had been assigned to me. That is also why my blog has been a little quiet the past several days: because I have been working furiously to finish reviewing the 25-page excerpts from the novels of 23 aspiring writers, and typing up my notes into something resembling cogent analysis with recommendations.

After finishing my half-hour sessions with today’s three “patients” I had a little break before the panel discussion started. Turns out it wasn’t much of a panel. There was only one other book doctor there besides me, a delightful lady named Kate Austin who drove down to Seattle from Vancouver, B.C. this morning. The other four book doctors were flying in from parts far and wide, so I was told, and just didn’t arrive in time.

Honestly, I think that was probably for the best, because with just two of us we were able to have a really nice, in-depth Q&A session with the audience members rather than a more formal panel discussion. By and large, the audience asked really good questions on pretty much every aspect of writing craft mentioned in the tag-cloud next to this blog post (and then some). Everyone was enjoying it so much we ended up running quite a bit over the allotted time. At the end of it I felt that Kate and I had established a real connection with the audience.

After the Q&A, I met up with a local writer friend of mine, and we adjourned to the hotel restaurant for dinner before returning for the evening keynote address by famous writer-guy Terry Brooks. He probably needs no introduction for anyone reading this blog, so I won’t. He gave a charming and pretty funny speech about how his writing career has affected his fame, fortune, friends, and fulfillment.

The end of the speech particularly resonated with me; he talked about how, for him, writing is the one thing that gives him the greatest sense of personal fulfillment. That the writing process itself, that sensation of losing yourself in the page while you’re writing, gives him an unmatchable sense of fulfillment.

I know that sensation, too, and probably so do you. But for me, embarking on this possibly mad quest to make a living as a freelance editor has a similar quality to it. It is hard, laborious work. But I get a charge out of reading unpublished novels that—if I can help them along a little or sometimes a lot—may someday be published. I get a sense of pride from helping writers improve their craft. And I definitely feel a sense of personal fulfillment from the simple act of taking my destiny into my own hands.

That’s something I never got from working a day job.

I turn 40 later this year. It may have taken nearly four decades, but I feel like I know what I want to be when I grow up, and I’ve finally realized that it’s up to me to make that happen.

July 31, 2009 06:03 UTC

Tags: PNWA, conference, Kate Austin, Terry Brooks, book doctor, fulfillment, quest, panel

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