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Sunday, November 21, 2010

Julia’s Guest Post

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I was on a date a few years ago. Halfway through the evening the guy said to me ‘I’m kind, generous and fun’ at which point I spat out my wine and almost punched the air in excitement. It wasn’t my romantic prospects I was so keyed up about: I’d just been given the best ever example of ‘show, don’t tell’.

‘Show, don’t tell’ is a piece of advice given to writers when they’re starting out. Often at the Greenhouse, we’ll see submissions that start by dumping an awful lot of information and back-story on the first page. That’s a fairly sure sign that the writer is still getting to grips with the craft of how to tell a story. I think Sarah would agree that it’s the number one turn-off in a query.

Reading isn’t about words on a page - it’s about looking through the page and beyond the ink to the scenes, characters and drama underneath.

When we talk about ‘telling’ we mean exposition in which the narrator, or main character, gives information about themselves, other characters or their world. The benefit of telling is that it gets the story down quickly - so don’t worry about it too much if you’re flying through a first draft and you want to lay plot fast. The problem with telling is that it’s dull to read so when you’re working on the next draft that’s probably the best time to be mindful of it.

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By taking out unnecessary telling you’re allowing your reader to occupy some space in the story. As a rule: If you need to share vital facts do it within a dramatic context.

The show don’t tell principle is also important in description. Description is tough to get right - it needs to serve a purpose otherwise your reader will zone out. I asked Greenhouse author, Michael Ford, to come up with an example.

‘The house next door looked spooky.’

versus…

‘A forgotten rocking chair sat on the front porch of number 22. It took only a light breeze to make it creak back and forth, as though someone had just stood up and walked inside. Worst of all, it seemed to move when there was no wind at all.’

I’ll bet that images came into your mind when you read that last example. If you were plugged into a machine that measured electrical activity in the brain, your visual cortex would have lit up - you weren’t seeing black squiggles on a screen, you were seeing pictures.

Sometimes to save the story a few pages of lengthy and drawn-out showing, you’ve got to tell. But stories come alive for the reader in the moments when a writer is showing.

A few questions to ask yourself during a revision.

Is the dialogue true to the situation or is it shoe-horning information in an inauthentic way?

Are there big chunks of exposition pointed right at the reader?

Do you find yourself summarizing the drama just to make sure it’s clear?

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If you’re still early on in your writing, and getting to grips with all the tough basics, ‘show, don’t tell’ is one of the biggies - and mastering it will give you the biggest leap in learning your craft.

It’s been a busy few weeks at the Greenhouse. Sarah is in London which means we got to catch up over a few glasses of pink and a big plate of pasta. And we’ll have some more exciting debut news to announce very soon.

If you’re wondering about the relevance of the photos with the blog post, there isn’t any - just a few pictures to give you a warm fuzzy when it’s so cold and dark outside.

Like Sarah, I’m a dog-lover. I’ve been trying to make friends with all the dog owners in my building for years. I’d find out from the porter the name and flat number of the person that owned the french bulldog with the dainty ankles, or the three blond dachshunds who were always in a hurry, even the smelly lab with the baggy eye-lids. Then I’d put a note through their letter box saying ‘Hello, I live in 129, I’ve noticed that you have a dog and if you ever want a dog-sitter then come and see me’.  In hindsight this might have creepy and unsurprisingly I didn’t get any take-up.

A few months ago I was eavesdropping in the lift and I heard one of my neighbours mention her dog. Right, I said to myself, don’t let this slip through your fingers. So I pulled my most job-interview smile and launched into my pitch: ‘I’ve always loved dogs, but I haven’t had one for years. I have a job and stuff and I’m normal. Can I have your dog, well maybe not have, but can I dog-sit, or walk him, or just pat his head and put my finger on that little velvet pocket he has on his ear?’ To stop me talking my neighbour agreed and now I look after him on Fridays when I work from home. He’s called Philos, he molts like nothing on earth and he’s very, very cosy. Isn’t he lovely?!

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Monday, November 08, 2010

By the people and for the people

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I’ve made a decision.

It is time.

Time to take back the books industry for the people. Time to produce books by the people and for the people.

We’ve had enough of superior beings sitting in New York offices telling us what is going to get published. Now it is time for US to decide. And our decision is that we want a lot more stories about families of squirrels. More anthropomorphic cereal boxes whose best friends are spoons. A major return to stories about drummer boys in the Revolutionary War. And as for craggy-jawed, adorable vampires – bring it on, there can never be too many.

Yes, we are going to rise up and reclaim publishing. Enough of all this tedious and unnecessary selection, rejection and general disappointment!

Oh, wait. Silly me. I’m so sorry, but I’ve just realized something . . .

We’ve ALREADY taken the industry back. I was forgetting a little thing called Print on Demand. And self-publishing. And blogging short fiction. And Authonomy . . . .

Of course! We the people have many, many ways, particularly these days, of getting our words out to a waiting world. If we have something to say, a vision of an audience, then we are never barred from the dissemination of our story. We can ALL become authors. It may cost us a bit, but a determined writer can get out there pretty easily nowadays, marketing and selling their words – and do really well with the enterprise. And why on earth not?

I think there are many ways of being a writer and most of them are, in my humble opinion, hugely underestimated and undervalued.

As a child I wrote many ‘books’ (dreadful spelling, huge writing, lined notebooks). They nearly all featured a yellow-haired girl called Sally and her horse-riding stables. These books were fully illustrated by me.

I wrote my first ‘serious’ piece (pretty funny, actually) when I was about 12 years old, and it was published in a local magazine.

My sister, as a teenager, took dictation from our grandmother of her entire life story, minutely transcribed from spidery shorthand. Being attacked in the jungles of Colonial India by unfriendly people wielding spears. Hearing news of the Titanic sinking. Sitting on the back steps as bombs came down in WW2.  It’s all there, for posterity. And now my mother is writing her own memoirs.

One can write for one’s church, school, children and grandchildren. Poems and stories make wonderful, personal gifts.  Or you can just write for yourself – like I did as a teenager when I was constantly ‘taking the dog out’ round the streets at night. My father used to think I was up to something nefarious, but in actuality I was composing POETRY in my head, which I would then come back and write down and file away in a special, secret place. Almost no one ever saw those poems, but a while ago I found them and was transported back to my early teens. 

I feel I am a writer, but I currently have absolutely no wish to be published. I am the MIDWIFE to those who seek publication, and I love that role.

Yes, there are tons of reasons to write, other than to be published by Random House or Flux or HarperCollins or Candlewick.

But if that is what you DO want, then it all becomes much, much more tricky. Because then a little word comes mightily into play. You know what that word is?

MARKET. MARKET. MARKET.MARKET.

And the market is not always fair, kind, understanding, or rewarding of what we feel should be rewarded.  The market can just be itself and make rude faces at us because it really is the boss of us, and it sets its own rules on what it deems valuable.  A quiet, beautiful, dreamy novella? Or a pacy, nail-biting, high-concept thriller? Where should the bigger advance go? What I personally think is pretty irrelevant. The market – ie, the consumer with money to spend – dictates the answer to the question.

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So what is the market telling me right now?

It’s telling me I’ve got to be wary of paranormal. And that there are lots of stories around about teen girls with ‘an altered state of consciousness’ (ie, who transport somewhere else, switch places with someone, live an alternate life).

I’m seeing an increased wish for contemporary, real-world stories (ie, without supernatural elements). I’ve heard a couple of editors putting out feelers for a ‘weepie’ story. And it’s incredibly hard to find a really great love story.

I was talking to an editor just on Friday who, like me, would love to find a story set in another part of the world, set against a real political situation. And my own wish to find a bleak novel (definitely with literary quality, this one) set in Scandinavia (or I’d settle for Iceland quite happily) was echoed by another senior editor last time I was in New York.

Magical realism is also of interest. Worlds that are real but where strange things happen.

For me, quality of voice and crafting are always going to be very important. I am a detail-person, I was trained as an editor when I was young, and I care about precision and the sound of words.  That search for quality is what I hear echoed time and time again by editors. What they are seeking right now is a strong, grabby idea, written with literary flair and skill.

The market is a strange beast - a creature that turns and shifts. But after 30 years in the business, I can tell you one thing. WHAT GOES AROUND, COMES AROUND. What is out of fashion now will almost certainly at some point make a comeback.

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Writing is by the people and for the people, and it always will be.

I can’t guarantee you a slot with Penguin or Bloomsbury, CarolRhoda or Simon & Schuster.  But I CAN guarantee that there are always good reasons to write, whether your audience is in the millions - or just one, yourself. It is not the size of your audience that validates the craft of putting words on a page.

The thought I want to leave you with is this. Enjoy writing; make it your treasure. And never let your quest for publication steal your joy.

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