picking apart writing advice

potentially part one? show don’t tell

I have found my groove and the novel is coming along quickly now. This is the part I love, where the words are there and I just dump them out. Sometimes I get a little bogged down in the valleys between the action peaks, but for the most part my plot outline keeps me on track. I’ve already made some switchups to it, as predicted. This is the good part though. When the first draft gets going and I don’t worry much about getting it right, just getting it out.

The critical component to this part is keeping the momentum going. Writing is obviously a lot slower than reading, but in general I find that the depths of my brain know what should be happening and when I find the flow state, it is not a problem to get it onto the page. Like I mentioned previously, I can’t skip sections when I get stuck. If I can’t find the right words, usually I need to start deleting until I can pick up the threads again. It can be tricky to know when I’m just bogged down in getting through the fallout from the dramatic action – for example, I’ve finished writing Plot Point 1, which was very exciting and dramatic. But now the three main characters need to deal with the consequences of their actions and resolve the micro-conflict, and they need to behave true to themselves, true to the setting, and true to their ages. My protagonist is an 11-year-old girl with a single mom who just got her dream job in space. They’ve made a major transition. Her mom has anxiety; my girl has picked up on it and tends to be anxious as well. She’s prepubescent but wants to stretch her wings. She’s made new friends and wants to keep them. There’s a massive spaceship to explore. All of these things have got her into a pickle, but now she needs to un-pickle so she can get to the next plot point, and that is a bit of a slog for me.

The other thing that can trip me up in drafting is description. I have the whole scene in my mind, but conveying that to the reader is tricky. “They walked down a hallway. It was grey and softly lit. They opened a door into a maintenance shaft and it was grey and very dim. They climbed a ladder and it was made out of a material she didn’t recognize.” That is pretty boring. That’s where “show, don’t tell” comes in – do I actually have to describe a hallway? It’s a hallway. How do I convey that the maintenance shaft feels like a place she shouldn’t be? Probably not by saying that outright, but by describing how she’s got butterflies in her stomach but her friends are assuring her that they do this all the time, and it’s not a big deal.

But then I also have a problem with too much showing. I don’t actually mind reading a chunk of exposition to situate me in a story, or to get past a chunk of time, or give context from the past. If everything is shown, then every single action everyone perform is soooo significant and the writing bogs down because every word matters. That’s actually pretty hard to read. I’ve been pondering the difference between the various types of books I like, from Middlemarch and Anna Karenina – literary doorstoppers that were written over a hundred years ago – to the fast-paced popular fiction by Leigh Bardugo or Tamsyn Muir. There are a lot more words in a doorstopper, obviously, and they were written before all these books on writing craft were out there, and somehow manage to not only still be readable but classics as well, and often held up as examples of excellent writing. But if I tried to write Middlemarch, where the plot takes 650 pages to get started, I’d fall out of the gate. But I also don’t think I can write Gideon the Ninth either – where the action starts immediately and then never really stops. I think I’m somewhere in between.

I learned to write by osmosis. When I was small, I had several favourite books at the library but I didn’t even think of asking my parents to buy them for me – there was no chance. My solution was to copy them out by hand. I only recently realized that this is probably where I learned grammar and sentence structure, which I’ve never had much of an issue with (please do not ‘well actually’ me about this, I don’t care), and I’m quite certain taught me story structure too. I also was one of those kids who read incessantly, and then I did a literature degree in university. I like to think that I have honed my writing ability fairly well by this point, and I’m not terribly concerned with following any arbitrary rules because I’m quite happy with the work I produce. The thing that trips me up is that I very much want my work to be published, which means I need to appeal to the industrial publishing complex (or somehow build an audience that can support self publishing, but that sounds worse). I can’t fully lose sight of that goal, but I also can’t let it take away from the delight of the first draft, where the story is fresh and exciting. It’s such a paradox – I have to write for myself in order to be able to write at all, but I also have to write for my as-yet-unknown reader and hope that I will beat the odds and get my story to them.