Absence Makes the Heart

heart I’ve been too long absent from my personal blog site, http://sharonboninpratt.wordpress.com/ having spent the last two months making final edits on two of my three adult novels. The activity doesn’t account for all of my lengthy absence, but does excuse much of it. A personal life with job and other family obligations (read problems) has taken over most of 2015, making it an unproductive year at Ink Flare. Still, it has not been a waste.

Absence makes the heart – you know the rest of the well-worn maxim. I’m not sure if anyone misses me at my blog, but the work I’ve done on my books will move me forward in pursuit of publication. It had been a very long time since I’d looked at the first two books, as I’ve worked on the third for the past three years. And a funny thing happened on the way to prepping for book-in-print stage – there were lots of mistakes, weepy phrases, repetitive words, boring filters, mixed metaphors, vapid words, and the most common of my mistakes: the word “that,” sometimes written more than once in a sentence. Ugh! You know that you must edit with a sharp knife when what you’ve written comes across as more clumsy than that which you remember. (Please laugh. OK, maybe chuckle. Grin?)

I’ve edited my books so often, some sections are memorized. I’d even memorized a few parts I’d already excised. Also discovered I’d forgotten some minor characters, or at least, certain traits I should know about them. What’s that guy’s name again?

My great discovery proved what I’ve long said must be done about one’s own writing: take lots of notes and read all your work out loud. Notes make it easier to check back about details: what a person looks like, how you chose to spell a name, when an important event was introduced, the dates of births, marriages, and deaths, etc. Reading aloud points out the clumsiness of one’s writing, inconsistent verb tense or points of view, and gaps in the story arc. It helps you tighten the story because no one wants to read a loose bag of words. No one will publish it.

I scrapped about 2500 words to my first book, but also added about 600, making incidents better realized and motivations more likely.

There is another thing I learned during this round of editing: I’d forgotten so much, my stories read like new to me. My own novels were my summer beach reads, absorbing my attention. I was able to track the build up of suspense, character development, plot elements, and chronology of events.

My favorite revelation has me convinced I should continue on this challenging course of writing, eventually seeking agents and editors. I like my books. They are works of passion but also of intellect. My protagonists are too flawed to approach sainthood; my antagonists have a nugget of humanity. The problems are complex and don’t offer ready solutions; the resolutions are satisfying but incomplete, leaving room for future and for wonder. Subplots are engaging and themes hint at underlying psychological confusion. In short, I like the books I write. They are similar in kind to the books I enjoy reading.

May your summer prove a wealth of opportunity to write and edit your works in progress. May you be stimulated by your writing. And may any absence from your writing make your heart grow fonder of this journey, whether avocation or occupation. At least, may your journey lead to new adventures, all of them exciting and worthy of your time.

Can You Show Me How?

horseIf you love to write and have taken a creative writing class, (I sure hope you’ve taken a writing class or three) you’ve heard the adage that a writer must show, not tell, a story. If you don’t know exactly what it means, you’re not alone. Confusion reigns on this topic because what seems obvious is difficult to describe without citing your second grade short story efforts and flapping your arms like an ostrich straining for flight. None of us wrote well in second grade so our loopy efforts are always good for embarrassing examples. As for the ostrich – great feathers, never gonna fly.

Your writing teacher probably threw the maxim at you until it became a paper sword, “You’ll know it when you see it.” It meant reading the best literature written in English: Twain, Harper Lee, Toni Morrison, D. H. Lawrence, Austen, Stegner, and their ilk. Blessed with professors intent on introducing you to excellent writers, you learned to read, even to riding shotgun for younger readers and writers. You know good writing now, but you still might not know how to do it, because that requires two specific tasks: practicing the art of writing, and seeing examples of what doesn’t work in order to contrast it with what does.

Many people think dialogue is the yellow brick road to avoiding telling pitfalls, but it’s not only not a guarantee, as dialogue has its own arena of skill to master, it fails to cite other strategies to successful showing. I’m going to identify four other writing markers to help you understand how telling differs from showing. You’ll forgive me, please, for not being Hemingway, but I charge less. The examples are my own, and while less worthy of literary attention than Ernest, they’ll suffice for this purpose. The tell passage comes first; the second follows with its swagger of BMOC – yep, all show, that one.

Details reveal you know exactly what you’re writing about because no one wants their accountant to fix the car.

T: I was a rebellious kid at home. (Yeah, whadija do, kid?)

S: Walking the long route through woods garbed in brittle gold, I grabbed a whirligig seed dropped from a maple tree and stuck it to my nose, my new proboscis declaring my alien status, and strode into the house two hours late, defiant of mom’s rule to get straight home from school. (Hoo-whee, you’re in big trouble now, kid.)

Emotions make your reader sympathetic to your character’s plight, so make your reader cry, laugh, scream, fight for justice for the protagonist – or demand the death penalty for the evil anti-hero.

T: Kate’s husband made her so mad. (Um, hubbies are like that.)

S: Kate trudged into the house to see Tom slouched in his recliner, an open beer can on the table, an empty strewn on the floor, ripping the fringes off her favorite leather jacket and lobbing them into the fireplace. (I’d be out the door to hire a divorce lawyer before my spit could hit the floor if my hubby did that.)

Great writing exposes the whole of the universe in minute detail.

(I’m going to break my formula here and quote a published sentence for the S. You’ll see why when you read it below.)

T: When she died, Daniel was heartbroken. (Doesn’t make me feel Daniel’s pain because it doesn’t remind me of my own.)

S: “When she was dead not a week later…Daniel learned that the dead take with them not only what we love in them but also what they love in us.” From The Marriage Artist by Andrew Winer, Henry Holt and Company, 2010. (The sentence melted me and compelled me to read late into the night. I wasn’t disappointed at the loss of sleep, as Winer’s story is consistently excellent.)

Write revealing information about your character so the reader really gets to know the stranger in her house.

T: Phil was extremely tall and wore his dark brown hair in a perfect cut. (So he’s good looking, but what kind of man is he?)

S: Phil leaned against the fence railing, elbows poking behind like lazy flags, and watched till the horse wore herself out, then sauntered over and stood near without looking her in the eye. She flicked her mane and pawed the dirt as if trying out new ballet shoes. He paced the edge of the fence, letting the mare follow at her own speed. She nuzzled his shoulder but he ignored her. He ambled along the fence line, barely scuffing up a dust trail, and finally dropped his hand backward, palm open. She nibbled his fingers as if tasting the salt, and whickered softly, an equine invitation to make friends. (Have no clue what Phil looks like, but I’d like to meet a man who can calm a skittish horse without hurting her.)

Telling sometimes works better – yeah, it might.

T: Jenny had made pancakes with her mom. (Make ‘em once, you know the drill, and please don’t use clumsy pluperfect tense.)

S: Jenny ransacked three shelves of canned pinto beans, tuna fish, strawberry jelly jars, Ritz cracker boxes, and bags of dried noodles stashed in the cupboard but didn’t find the flour till she searched the back of the fridge and spotted a half empty white paper bag rolled up against the side of last night’s hamburger casserole. Dragging it out meant shifting the open can of condensed milk that Gramps poured into his coffee every morning. She splattered a hefty dollop of it all over the shelf and grabbed the rag from the sink to mop up the mess. The flour still huddled at the back of the fridge. She shoved two wrinkled apples out of the way and yanked a carton of sour milk laid on its side because at least a dozen wine bottles filled the tall shelves. (The kitchen’s such a mess, how’s she going to make anything to eat in there that won’t give ‘em all ptomaine poisoning?)

What’s wrong with the second paragraph? Nothing, except the lengthy description of trying to get the bag of flour to make pancakes, and I haven’t yet written about locating an empty bowl, scrubbing dried egg off the mixing spoon, or greasing the griddle. Making breakfast, however, is only the springboard to Jenny talking with Mom about the fact that the 15-year-old is pregnant. It would work if I wanted to show the anxious teen delaying the awful conversation as long as possible. This is where a writer must make a decision: bore the reader with infinite description of a mundane activity, or get to the damn point already and sink your writing chops into an event important to the story. (This time, choose tell but write it in simple past tense: Jenny made pancakes with her mom. Now get on with the rest.)

Telling provides information while showing makes the reader feel and relate. One is as useful as an almanac, the other as exciting as leaping over waterfalls. An almanac can hold your attention while waiting for dinner to heat in the microwave, but a waterfall will make you forget you were hungry. Now go practice writing.

How Do You Get There From Here?

Practice makes perfect.

Whatever you choose to call it—aphorism, adage, maxim, idiom, cliché—that saying is largely accepted as truth. But it’s not particularly true. I will certainly concede that practice will make you better at what you are trying to do, but to say it will get you to perfection assumes that you know what to do to achieve perfection.

A quick example might better demonstrate what I mean. Right now, I have achieved a certain level of skill as a writer. Let’s call that level, X. So I write. And I keep writing. Sometimes I don’t do as well as I could, and the story I produce is, oh maybe, X-2. Some days I’m really on my game and I might produce a story that as good as X+2. But most of the time, the stories I write are an X. If I continue to practice, practice, practice, at some point in the future I’ll be a better writer—maybe X+1. But as a writer, my goal is to be a much better writer…let’s call that level Y.

Is practice enough to get me there? I could explain and equivocate, but the answer is, NO. Because at some point you need to acquire the knowledge to know what your weaknesses are AND the knowledge to fix them.

So think back to your childhood. I’ll use the example of learning to throw a football. When I was three or four years old, I started watching football with my dad. When I wanted to learn to play, he bought me a shiny, blue Nerf football. So how did I start? I walked outside and gave a mighty heave. The ball probably flew a foot or so. Now, if I’d relied solely on practice to get better, I’m sure I would have discovered how to hold the ball—eventually. I might even have been able to get some distance on a throw. But I never would have been any good. But that’s not what happened. After that first toss left me frustrated, my father picked up the football and started to show me the basics.

That is to say… he taught me.

While practice is the most fundamental tool we have to get better, it will only get us so far. We have to work to improve our skills by learning. We must learn what we do right, what we do wrong, what we do inconsistently. But more importantly we must learn what other people do, whether it works for them, whether we think it will work for us.

I won’t even try to count the ways to do this. There are classes, workshops, books, magazines, websites, critique groups (where there are writers better than you), forums discussion groups, honest friends…

I need to decide what I will do this year to get closer to Y.

What about you? What are your plans, in the next year, to get better at your craft?