Tag: resource

Author’s note: This post was first published April 28th, 2010.  Please feel free to comment.  As I am busy climbing a mountain now, I’ll respond to all comments when I return.  Thanks!

Not a single one of you reading this wants to fail at the writing game.  I don’t either.

But statistics are against us.  After all, as the famous demotivational poster points out: it could be that the purpose of our lives is only to serve as warnings to others.

So I was blown away by this recent article about why some authors never succeed.  I tell ya, I wish I could report that there was much here I already knew, but my impression was exactly the opposite: there is a lot here I have barely given thought to or am only now beginning to wrap my head around.

A few quick thoughts after reading this article:

  • Learning about the industry is certainly key–but there is a lot to know.  Make sure you set time aside to do your homework.
  • Accepting feedback is critical, but equally important is finding good sources of feedback.  Not doing so can be a dealbreaker.  Classes and forums can only go so far–get out there and find other writers that are at your experience level and that share your interests who you can exchange work with.
  • I think right along with measuring success in book sales, measuring success in blog posts (for us greener writers who have not been published yet) can be equally misleading.  If the fiction isn’t getting done but your blog is rocking, you may need to take a closer look at your priorities.

And I think the most important lesson is understanding that you are going to fail–that sooner or later you’ll try and not succeed–but learning from your failures and pressing on.  “Fail up,” as the author notes. 

So I ask you: how do you measure short and long-term success?  What are the measuring sticks you use to judge daily, monthly, and yearly progress?  What’s your process when things don’t go as planned?

Lola Sharp put up a fantastic post about showing and not telling at her place, Sharp Pen/Dull Sword yesterday.  Not only does her post detail the various faux pas‘ associated with telling, but she provides a plethora of insightful examples.

I am up for air after two weeks going through the ground school ringer.  I feel smart(er) on flying this new aircraft, and this week, the movers are busy as bees depositing our various belongings in boxes for our move to Sicily.  Quite obviously, the blog has suffered, but I am anxious to get back to a more regular routine.  I thank you all for your patience and promise that things will return to normal again soon.

As I am getting back in the groove, Lola’s post reminded me of a breakthrough I had last year which, for all intents and purposes, launched me on the current writer’s trajectory I am on now.  And it dealt with showing vs. telling.

Her post does a much better job of describing the “how” of showing vs. telling than I ever could.  But my breakthrough came when I read an article that explained the “why” behind the showing vs. telling rule.  I read this fantastic article by Alexander Chee, and the following quote swept through my synapses like a Texas cyclone, clearing away all the old detritus that kept me from realizing what I’d been missing all along:

If you’re doing your job, the reader feels what you felt. You don’t have to tell the reader how to feel. No one likes to be told how to feel about something. And if you doubt that, just go ahead. Try and tell someone how to feel.

In short, nothing has been the same since.

You see, when you tell instead of show, the sin you commit is to essentially act like a referee or TV announcer who stands between the characters in your story and the reader and says: “OK.  That’s out of bounds.  OK.  He just scored.  OK.  She’s now twenty points behind.”

If you effectively show, then there’s no offending emcee.  The reader sees the scene–but far more importantly, the reader is allowed to interpret the scene.  In my humble opinion, that is the reason why showing is so critical to good writing.  This a good recipe for keeping readers engaged.  Show a scene, trust your reader to understand it, and they’ll learn to love you for it.

What are some of your tips and tricks that help you with showing instead of telling?  What the was the source of a recent writing breakthrough?

At the moment, I’m attending the first session of a two day aviation water survival course in Norfolk, Virginia.  Today was the classroom work; tomorrow we get to bag some pool  time and ride the helo dunker, among other events (Youtube video at the link).  It’s actually pretty fun.

In class this morning, we learned about human factors.  What are human factors, you say?  I’m glad you asked.

It turns out that most aviation mishaps do not result from a mechanical malfunction or act of god, like bad weather.  The most likely cause of an accident, by a wide margin, is pilot error.  Pilot error occurs when the pilot loses situation awareness, or fails to perceive his environment properly.  Most of these problems are lumped together broadly under the heading of spatial disorientation, or SD (gotta love those acronyms!).

A key component of SD is what a pilot thinks about what he sees.  His brain’s interpretations of the incoming data, whether it be visual, aural, or through some other channel, can affect his understanding of his surroundings, sometimes with disastrous consequences.  Like a blind spot, a pilot’s opinions can actually cause him to miss key information or objects because his brain has convinced him they aren’t there.

I think writers can suffer from the same problem.  Don’t believe me?  Let’s do a test then, shall we?  I want you to read the following phrase:

PARIS
IN THE
THE SPRING

Done?  Good.  Now store those words away for a moment and let’s have some fun!

I learned this trick in my college Psych class, but they used a similar test this morning.  You see, what you just read doesn’t actually say what you think it says.  WAIT!  Don’t go back and read it again until I explain.

Reportedly, about 90% of the normal population will fail this test, because of how our brains work.  Since you are a bunch of writers who do a lot of editing, I’d expect the numbers to be lower–say half–but I still stand by my claim.  At least 50% of you think the above phrase says something different than it actually says.

OK.  I’ll let you in on the secret.  Read it again.  It says: “Paris in the *THE* spring.”  Yep.  Missed it, didn’t you?

You see, your brain is hardwired with all these rules you don’t know are there.  Since the word “the” never comes right after another “the”, your brain skips right over it without telling you.  A truer illustration of an honest-to-goodness blind spot, I’ve never seen.

So what does this mean for us writers?  It means we probably have tons of these little rules infecting our prose because our brain skips over the blemishes without telling us.  The trick is to develop techniques to see into these blind spots.  Here are three that work for me:

  • Read my prose out loud.  Somehow the act of reading it tickles a different part of the brain and I hear phrase problems as well as other things that I don’t discover when reviewing silently.
  • Print and review a hardcopy.  The words on paper appear differently than they do on screen.  They’re laid out in a different way.  The experience of holding the page in my hand, the physicality of it as opposed to reading from the screen is different.  These distinctions help me to illuminate blind spot areas also.
  • Change font type and size.  This can also jar things loose.  In fact, sometimes I write my drafts in one font, then edit in another. 

These all work by tricking your brain into looking at your fiction in different ways.  And of course, the help of another brain (read beta reader or critique partner) brings a ton to the table as well.

What about you?  Do you have blind spots?  What do you do to keep your brain from playing tricks on you?

I’ve been wrestling with dialogue tags lately, primarily because my WIP involves a number of characters (an infantry squad if you must know) who talk amongst themselves constantly.  Balancing the requirement to identify who says what against the need to avoid slowing my pace to a snail’s crawl has been a challenge.

I may have mentioned at some point that I minored in Playwrighting, among my other claims to fame (we won’t mention the dating a supermodel incident–primarily because it never happened).  While I was never a great playwright, I did learn a thing or two about dialogue, and I thought I might share a recent insight.

The general rule in fiction I’ve heard kicked around is that you should use “said” whenever possible to tag lines of dialogue.  No tag at all–so-called “naked dialogue”–is even better, as long as the “naked” doesn’t go on too long.  The reason is that “said” isn’t really heard by the reader (I can believe that), and so should be used in all cases where something stronger isn’t needed (retorted, answered, mocked, etc.).

But how do we know when said is proper and when it is not?

To get to the answer, we need to take a short detour.  Let’s look at a scrap of dialogue from a stage play (straight from my unhinged and lucid imagination of course).

GAVIN
(rubbing his belly)

Man, I could really go for some of that pie!

Here we have an action Gavin should be performing (rubbing his belly) as he says the line. Remember that stage plays have to rely almost exclusively on dialogue and character action.  Unlike fiction, description and internal monologue is kept to a bare minimum, so the tag is a way the playwright can tell the actor reading the script how to behave.

What often happens with beginning playwrights is that they misuse the action tag to describe how they imagine the line should be said, like so:

GAVIN
(hungrily, angrily, cornily, crazily, etc.)

Man, I could really go for some of that pie!

What the playwright is trying to do here is compensate for the fact that the line does not carry all the information required to express the needed idea.  Of course, sometimes this is unavoidable, but if you were to take a look at the best plays out there, you would see page upon page of dialogue where no tag is given at all (except in cases where a clear physical action is needed from one of the characters).  Good playwrights make the dialogue do all the work necessary to carry the story forward.

So what does this tell us about tag usage in fiction, you ask?  Well, I was getting to that.  As I said, sometimes dialogue needs the tag to put it in context for the reader.  Observe:

“Jimmy, come over here,” Sharon crooned.

“Jimmy, come over here,” Sharon barked.

“Jimmy, come over here,” Sharon whispered.

In these three examples, the tag actually conveys the emotional context for the dialogue.  Without the tag (i.e., using only “said”), the emotion in the line/scene might not be clear.

As this shows, from time to time the right choice is substituting a more muscular verb for “said”, to convey the meaning of the situation.  But another option available–and the preferred one in my opinion–is to think more like a playwright, and make your dialogue do as much work as possible.  For example:

“Jimmy, I want you to come over here,” Sharon hissed angrily.  {good}

“If you don’t come here this very minute, I swear I’m gonna tan your hide!” Sharon said.  {better}

So that’s it in a nutshell.  Let your dialogue do more work, and you may find your job of tagging a little bit easier.  Thoughts?  What do you wrestle with the most when working on your dialogue?

Not a single one of you reading this wants to fail at the writing game.  I don’t either.

But statistics are against us.  After all, as the famous demotivational poster points out: it could be that the purpose of our lives is only to serve as warnings to others.

So I was blown away by this recent article about why some authors never succeed.  I tell ya, I wish I could report that there was much here I already knew, but my impression was exactly the opposite: there is a lot here I have barely given thought to or am only now beginning to wrap my head around.

A few quick thoughts after reading this article:

  • Learning about the industry is certainly key–but there is a lot to know.  Make sure you set time aside to do your homework.
  • Accepting feedback is critical, but equally important is finding good sources of feedback.  Not doing so can be a dealbreaker.  Classes and forums can only go so far–get out there and find other writers that are at your experience level and that share your interests who you can exchange work with.
  • I think right along with measuring success in book sales, measuring success in blog posts (for us greener writers who have not been published yet) can be equally misleading.  If the fiction isn’t getting done but your blog is rocking, you may need to take a closer look at your priorities.

And I think the most important lesson is understanding that you are going to fail–that sooner or later you’ll try and not succeed–but learning from your failures and pressing on.  “Fail up,” as the author notes. 

So I ask you: how do you measure short and long-term success?  What are the measuring sticks you use to judge daily, monthly, and yearly progress?  What’s your process when things don’t go as planned?