Friday, December 20, 2013

Friday Fricassee

I unabashedly love Christmastime.  Not the commercialism, not the traffic, not the intellectual-coma-inducing horribleness of the holiday not-really-music they blast in stores, gas stations, and anywhere else your unsuspecting ears happen to show up.

But I love the sparkle.  I love holding secrets inside me--gifts and surprises for the people I love best.  (Right now, I'm tracking the it-cost-27-bucks-to-mail-this-box-to-Pennsylvania package that's on its way to my parents' house.  It's supposed to arrive on Monday.  Place your bets!)  And in addition to the importance of my faith and the reason for the celebration, I simply adore the beauty and simplicity of what Christmas is to me.  I don't spend thousands of dollars.  I don't get caught up in the "have-tos" and "musts" and "obligatory garbage".

I do bake cookies.  And eat them.  (And eat them.  And...)  And I'm especially excited this year because my sister and her family are traveling ON CHRISTMAS DAY so that we can be together ON CHRISTMAS NIGHT.  My sister and I haven't been together for Christmas since 1999.  That's a lot of years to not be together on our favorite holiday.  So naturally I'm doing all sorts of Happy Things (like putting a tiny Christmas tree in the guest room) to celebrate being with my sister this year.

So that's where my heart and my mind and my focus have been this past week.  But I do want to offer a bit of a writerly "gift", so to speak, to you--specifically to those of you who are either currently revising or getting ready to revise a novel.  And here it is:

In my editing this past year, and in the Baker's Dozen slush, there is a recurring problem that, if addressed, will breathe life into so many stories that want to be told, but need to be told BETTER.  The problem is TOO MUCH TELLING.  I know you've heard it dozens of times, but it's absolutely true.  Let me show you what I mean:


Lacy shivered in the icy bathwater.  It wasn't her choice to be married to the Dragon King, but what could she do?  Ever since her father, King Fingerling, had died, Lacy had tried hard to keep the kingdom running smoothly.  There were balls to organize, peasants to appease, and, oh, yes, there were all those political things to attend to.  When the Dragon Kingdom started to become a problem, Lacy knew she had to do something to keep the peace.  She never dreamed that "keeping the peace" would mean soaking in a frigid bath to lower her body temperature so that she would be acceptable in the presence of the Dragon King.  Everyone knew that Dragons were coldblooded, and the warmbloodedness of humans was one thing that would raise their ire--and, unfortunately, their appetites.  Two young maidens had gone missing just this month, and Lacy could tell that people were feeling pretty annoyed by this.    She sighed and drew up her knees, wrapping her arms around them in an attempt to get warm.

Now, Lacy might have an interesting story to lead us into, but there's absolutely nothing happening in the above paragraph but BLAH BLAH BLAH.  And to be perfectly honest, if not slightly tactless, that is what I have seen a fair amount of, both in openings and in the body of manuscripts:  BLAH BLAH BLAH.

It is certainly important to give us backstory and world details -- we do need to know about the Dragon Kingom, and about the need to lower Lacy's body temperature (wow, am I good at coming up with story lines off the cuff or what? I should try to write a novel some time...).  But, even though the above paragraph contains some important story information, it's too much all at once, and it doesn't do ANYTHING to draw us into Lacy's world.

Seriously.  I see this a lot.  And if you're revising or getting ready to revise your novel, I want you to keep this in mind.

Here's a better version of my soon-to-be bestseller's opening:

Lacy shivered in the icy bathwater.  Five minutes had felt like fifty, and it would take at least half an hour to lower her body temperature to the proper level for meeting the Dragon King.

"Just a little w-warmer?" she asked Marta, who had just arrived bearing a copper bucket.

"No, Majesty, " Marta said.  "I've brought some more ice."

Lacy groaned.  "I think I'd rather die."  She drew up her knees and wrapped her arms around them.

"Now, then," Marta said, dumping the ice into the water.  "You know the Dragon King won't let you near him if you're even a degree too warm."

It was true--the Dragons were ridiculously inflexible about the body temperature thing.  As if being warmblooded were somehow beneath them.  

"L-let's just come up with another plan to save the kingdom," Lacy said.  "I don't w-want to marry the Dragon King." 

(You're dying to read the story now.  I can tell.)

But seriously--aside from the silliness, you can see that, in the second example above, we jump right into the scene.  We see Lacy drawing up her legs to get warm; we hear the chill in her words as she stutters through her shivering.  We see Marta bringing a bucket of ice, and we first learn about the Dragon King in the context of dialogue.  There's a smattering of information in the sixth paragraph, but it's just enough to give us what we need to keep reading the scene.  It's not a big chunk of BLAH BLAH BLAH that kills the pacing or makes our eyes glaze over.

Anyway.  My gift to you, small though it may be.  If this was something you needed to read, I hope it will allow you to look at your own work with fresh eyes.

Happy writing, happy weekend, and I'll see you Monday!


  1. It's true-and it's hard. It takes a lot of practice to KNOW what the reader needs to know first off. We think they need all of it, and for me it's hard to find the simple pieces they do need. I need a template for every book!
    BTW-This is really a fantastic sample of what not do and what to do. Really nice. I'm saving it. Happy Holiday's authoress. Enjoy special time with your sister after all these years.

  2. Actually, I liked the first example. A little rushed, true, but all around not bad. The second example, although more in the moment, is less interesting. If I picked up the first book (if I were the type to read fantasy) and then the second, I'd probably go with the first.

    Telling, like all the other 'no-no's, is okay if it's done well. Brilliant voice, the perfect word choices, and you can tell all you want. It will be a gripping story anyway.

    Enjoy the holiday, how great you'll be able to spend it with your sister! Here's to peacefulness and sparkle.

  3. Great example.

    Have a great time with your sister. Merry Christmas.

  4. That was a fantastic example and clarified a LOT for me. 'Too much telling, not enough showing' has always been a rock in my shoe- more so when I didn't have a lovely side by side example and solution as you have so graciously given me. THANK YOU.

  5. Enjoy the Christmas celebration with your sister.

    And thank you for a great example of "Show Versus Tell Too Much Too Soon."

  6. Great examples. The second had me shivering. (i'd fazed out on the first by the fourth sentence.

    But what I really wanted to say was Merry Christmas to you and your sister. Eat lots of cookies.

  7. Everything about this post is like a shiny package wrapped up in ribbon. Thank you for your dedication, wisdom, and of course, snark ;)

  8. The best way I've found to get better at show don't tell is to have a critique partner or group. I can more easily see telling in someone else's work than my own. Even when I think I'm not info-dumping or using extended narration, someone else's eyes and viewpoint can point it out. Over time it gets *slightly* easier :) I'm still in that stage trying to figure out which scenes should be shown and which scenes aren't necessary. Sometimes a scene doesn't add anything to the story and even if it's good writing, might be slowing the pace.

    Thanks Authoress for all you do! Happy Holidays! Enjoy that family time.

  9. Good examples, Authoress. :)

    It's funny how the show-don't-tell point is driven into us when we're new writers, and often we can get so caught up in the showing that we don't tell enough. I had to add more backstory to the second book in my Knight's Curse series because my Harlequin editor said I wasn't giving the reader enough information.

    Many times it can be a matter of taste, and it depends on the story. Fantasy and historical fiction will sometimes have a considerable amount of telling, but if done right, it works. If what you're telling has a direct effect on the plot and/or character at that particular moment in story time, you might want to keep it.

  10. Thanks for sharing this, it really was a gift! It's good to see an example like that, it really does help.

    Thanks for all you do for writers, and have a very merry Christmas.

  11. No matter how many times we hear it, it's still good advice. I have a particularly hard time with telling in my first chapters. This is great advice for the New Year's editing.

  12. I prefer the first version, in fact. It gets all that set-up across neatly, then you can get into the scene with the Dragon King. The second version just stretches it all out.