Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Show, Don't Tell--What Does That Really Mean?

Imagine trying to describe the image to the left. Lights swirling all over a black background? Winter wheat in a field, caught by the last sun?
What could possibly convey the movement and delicacy of this photograph to someone who hasn't seen it? That's basically what we writers are up against. We're trying to convey the emotional truth of a moment to readers who've never been there.

Some writers do this by telling about the moment. "She was depressed after he died." "He never felt so excited." But this telling doesn't really put us, the reader, in that moment. We're still observing from a distance. When you translate telling into showing, the reader comes into the same room with the story.

"She was depressed after he died" becomes "One day Mollie drew the curtains on the daylight and did not ever draw them back again" (William Trevor, "At Olivehill" from Cheating at Canasta). "He never felt so excited" becomes "His skin was now flushed, his eyes sparking. He leaned into the provocation" (Vivian Gornick, "At the University" from Approaching Eye Level).

See the difference? It's great writing, but why? Because it places us there, with the people in the story, not telling but showing.

This week find a passage, a sentence, a phrase where you backed off, out of the room of your story. Bring yourself and your reader back. Translate the telling into showing.

PS Go out and find the two books mentioned above. Fabulous writing, great winter reading.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Winter Writing--A Chance to Slow Way Down

Outside my office window, the snow is coming down fast. I cancelled a dentist appointment today, shoveled the steps, walked to the mailbox, but mostly I'm reveling in being snowbound. It gives me no excuse not to slow down.

Slowing down is great for my writing. A naturally speedy person, I tend to get bored with passages where I should linger longer. So I use snow to lull my fast-paced mind into that drifty dreamy place my characters often need.

What slows you down? We're not talking coma level, just slowed to the place where you appreciate--and can write--the finer details. This week's exercise will help you notice how your book comes alive in the small things that you might notice more as you slow your pace.

1. Put on some music that lets you drift.
2. Don't look at emails, Facebook, or My Space for 20 minutes--force yourself!
3. Look around the room you're in. Begin noting what you see.
4. Then pay attention to sounds. Note what you hear.
5. If you can, add temperature and texture--the touch sense. Or smell.
6. Do this while breathing. Deeply if you can.

What's the difference in your writing?

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Reverse Goal-Setting: Magic Action for Writers

Goal-setting doesn't work for many book writers. Maybe we're too random. Maybe we need more flexibility than traditional goal-setting allows. Even those of us who love lists rebel three months into a prescribed plan. Our books are evolving in a new way, and the plan doesn't fit.

Enter Reverse Goal-Setting. With Reverse Goal-Setting, you start from the end and work backwards. You get flexibility. You get chances to adjust and modify as you go. You also get a reality check--and you create writing goals that are actually possible to achieve and still stay sane and happy in your larger life arena (with family, friends, work responsibilities).

Want to try it? Using the presume you did last week (see post below this one) you can launch your Reverse Goal-Setting pretty easily. If you didn't do last week's exercise, take time to do it now (10 minutes max) then come back.

Get a large sheet of paper. Create 12 columns or boxes, one for each month of 2009. Label them by the months, from January to December.

Starting with December's column, review your year-end goal from your presume. Ask yourself: What would have to happen in December for this January 2010 goal to be realized? Write three tasks for December 2009.

Move back one month to November 2009. What would have to happen in November for December's goal to be realized? Write three tasks for November.

And so forth. You get the picture. Continue backwards through the months until you get to now, January 2009.

Here comes the reality check. Look at where you are now, with your writing in its present state, with your other responsibilities. Is your year-end goal reasonable, even possible? Is it too big or too small? Does it feel good, well aligned with your other creative goals and your life responsibilities?

Modify, add, reduce, adjust as needed, until the year-end goal in your presume feels accurate and just enough of a stretch.

I learned this the hard way: Success in goal-setting is all about being accurate. It's also about adjusting the goal so you can succeed. Each time you succeed, your self-esteem as a creative person goes way up. Using Reverse Goal-Setting makes it easier to see where you're going to succeed with your writing goals--and where you're not.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

New Year's Treat--A Presume Exercise for Writers

What's your dream for your book this year? Try a simple new-year's exercise to find out. It's called a presume--a word coined by Tony Fanning and Robbie Fanning, authors of a fabulous book called Get It All Done and Still Be Human, which changed my life when I read it twenty years ago. As clearly as a resume shows your past, a presume shows your future. You are using a principle called "acting as if." Believe me, it works!

Want to try it? Imagine yourself a year from today. Write the date at the top of your page: January 6, 2010.

Now, writing in the present tense, compose a few sentences about where you are with your writing on that date. "I am..." "I have completed..." "I finally discovered..." Use these excerpts from students in my creative-writing workshops if you need clues:

Scott: "It's New Year's Day and I just printed out the complete first draft of my novel! All because I finally got a handle on the important characters. They're coming alive, it's totally exciting. I even know--I think!--where to take them next."

Martha: "This year has been good for my writing in that I finally understand what this book is about. By February, I worked out a regular writing schedule, which I kept to more or less, and B. and the kids have been very supportive."

Celeste: "After some deep thinking, I realized I needed a break from the book and took a couple of really outstanding poetry classes. They re-energized me creatively. I'm back at work on the manuscript but it's not a burden."

What would have to happen, both professionally and personally, for you to feel completely happy with your writing progress this coming year? Write your presume any way you wish--as a business card, a poem, a journal entry, a list of items. Put it away and let it work its magic.

Next week, we'll look at action steps to make the presume real, a technique called Reverse Goal-Setting.