Friday, February 26, 2021

Summary Tells, Scene Shows--How to Use Each in Fiction and Memoir

I've been thinking a lot this week about the ways we tell stories. Some writers come from a background of oral storytelling, as in gathering round the fire and relating tales. A tradition of vocal rhythm, handed down from culture or place or heritage, crafts their stories almost unconsciously.
Stories are something told, not necessarily something shown.

There's much beauty in this. Much to value.

This past month, I read manuscripts from three talented writers from that oral tradition. They wrote about their home countries, about their lives now, about returning to where they came from, either in real life (memoir) or fictional (novel) situations. The stories are different in content and place but they all use this storytelling manner, this oral tradition, trying to make its rhythmic beauty work on the page.

All of them are skilled with employing imagery--impactful descriptions of place, sensory details that moved me as a reader and brought back locations I'd visited years ago, A moment they described wasn't just about an intimate dinner in a small house nestled in the hills of southern France; it included the extraordinary flavors that meal offered, the heat in the summer air, and the smell of smoke from a nearby fire.

But bottom line: the story was told, not shown. A chapter like this worked. A short article, a short story, also. But many chapters in a 300-page manuscript demanded more variation in this storytelling style, I felt, because a distance between myself and the narrator grew with each telling.

Why is this? A real-live narrator sits in front of you, relating the story at the table we are circled around as we listen. When we remove the expressions and gestures of the storyteller that fill in so many gaps, telling only holds the reader for so long.

Maybe it's because readers know truth about a narrator--I loved him, she hated me, he was boorish, they were trustworthy--by witnessing this truth enacted, rather than told. We believe what we see it demonstrated in literature.

This is where scene enters the scene.

Scene brings demonstration, immediacy, and a way to test narrator reliability. Scene contains "shown" moments, versus "told" ones. Rather than someone telling us "about" an event, we get to be part of it, witnessing it ourselves.

Telling has its place, absolutely. It gives needed distance. Sometimes readers need that distance to absorb what's happened. Also, summarizing (telling in condensed form) a passage of time is more efficient than blow-by-blow details of days that aren't consequential. We don't mind the telling, because it allows us to keep moving.

But when an event really counts, when we're supposed to come away with a conclusion about the narrator or situation, it's useful to consider scene.

I also find that scene brings theater. When we're listening to a great storyteller, theater comes via the person who engages us--their hand movements, their voice, their expressions, how they lean forward and hold their breath before they deliver the punchline. Theater evaporates in telling, after a while, because the narrator isn't in front of us to enliven the words. Soon, we have only the words. We drift.

I don't believe in indiscriminate use of scene. I've encountered that in other manuscripts I've read. One scene after another is exhausting--there's no place to pause and absorb. I also find it feels almost silly to have lots of scenes about trivial events. Why create a scene about the narrator buying his morning coffee at Dunkins? Nothing comes of it. When you write a scene, it has to count. Readers expect something important to be the result of that moment buying coffee--maybe he meets a key person, or he spills it and flubs the presentation at work because of this.

Writers can err on the too-much-scene side as well as too much summary. It's a certain balance. Like music, a rhythm.

A client asked me recently, "How do I know whether to put this moment in scene or summarize it?" I battle with that question every time I sit down to write. I've gained some instinct about the choice, but here's the question I ask, which helps when the instinct isn't handy: Does this moment have clear and important consequence in the story? If so, it's often good to consider scene. Does this moment add some good stuff but not shake the story's world? If so, maybe summary is fine.

And although it's years old, I like to refer writers to this post by Dave King, co-author of that wonderful craft book, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. He aptly describes the pros and cons of show and tell, scene and summary.

Click on the link below if you want to check it out.
Dave King's post on show and tell.

Friday, February 19, 2021

Dealing with Rejection Close to Home: When Family and Friends React to Your Writing

A reader sent me a poignant email a few months ago. She's writing a memoir and happened to show segments to her family--for all the best reasons. She wanted her sister and brother to verify facts from their turbulent childhood. She wanted them to validate what she remembered. And she, naturally, wanted their support as she went forward with the book.

It's a hard story to write, and support would be so very welcome. But instead of confirming her memories, this writer's siblings reacted strongly against them, horrified that she'd open the vault of family secrets.

Another writer wrote me this week about her own family rejection--she'd put together a group of her stories and created Shutterfly books as holiday gifts. They were lovingly made, with photos tucked into the narrative. But she received only silence from most of the recipients, just one acknowledgement. That hurt!

I've heard similar stories in my classes, experienced it myself. I was once married to an editor, like myself. When I showed him my novel-in-progress, he took great care to mark all the punctuation and other errors in his trademark red pen, then handed it back to me. I asked him what he thought of the story itself, since that's what I was really after. "I don't read fiction," he told me. And I knew that. So why did I expect differently?

I've come to believe there are two main reasons we decide to share writing with those closest to us.

One reason is to get their feedback, blessing, or approval if we are including them in our stories in some way (even fictionalized or with identity mostly hidden). That's reasonable and often wise. A recently published memoirist worked with me on this very issue when she was writing about a mentally ill brother. She sought unofficial release from him, his permission, and he gave it. It relieved her immensely to know that at least she'd done her best to include him in the decision. Another writer I worked with carried a completely different view: her writing was nobody's business but her own, her story was hers to tell, she needed no approvals. You have to find your own side of this line.

For me, I decided to get signed releases from those whose stories I included in my memoir/self-help book years ago, and I'm glad I did. A few years after publication, one of the contributors wanted his story removed. I approached the publisher but the book was not able to be reprinted on just this request alone--too costly. And I had the signed release. I went back to the contributor and shared the news. Not entirely what he wanted, of course, but nothing he could do about changing their decision.

On the other hand, I didn't run family stories by my siblings before including them. Neither sib was mentioned in the story--only our grandmother--but it still caused friction for about a year after publication. All's well now, but that was a good lesson. I don't know if I'd have done anything differently, though. I leaned towards the "this is my story" when I made that decision, and I stand by it now.

The other reason we share our writing with those closest to us is as a gift. Like my reader who made the Shutterfly books, we are giving something from our hearts to theirs. And writing, given as a gift, is precious indeed. We expect, even if we haven't said it even to ourselves, some reaction, some thank you, some praise. We want our beloveds to love it as we do.

In my experience, this rarely happens. Sad to say. I am extremely choosy about who I share my writing with now. I learned from my ex (the editor mentioned above) that praise is not automatically granted even if we're married. I've also learned from sharing with close friends that they can be bewildered by my expectations and not really know how to react. Whether they love the writing itself or don't, it's a bit like someone painting a picture for another person and giving it with the expectation that it'll be appreciated. I also remember doing this with a dear friend, many years ago. Gifting her with one of my paintings, then never seeing it hanging in her house. Eventually I asked. She said it wasn't her taste. We remained friends but I learned a hard lesson there.

My choosiness now, around sharing my writing, means I have a group of writerly friends and colleagues. I share with them. If I share writing with a friend, I make sure they know what I want from the gesture--I tell them directly what kind of feedback I'd like, if any. That helps them. I also tell them that if they'd prefer not to give feedback, to just let me know. A big relief for everyone.

My spouse is a working singer-songwriter. We have discussed this topic so often, because it impacts both of us. When to share, with whom, and what to expect. Sometimes, one of us wants to share just because an exciting milestone has been reached--a gnarly lyric completed, a hard scene. We've given each other feedback for works-in-progress in the past, very usefully and with goodwill. Now, we tend to wait until something is show-ready. In fact, I haven't even shared a word of my current novel, wanting my agent to comment first.

There's something good about waiting. I call it creative tension. In my early career, I had very little of it and shared with everyone. I'd find the energy or good tension around a project collapsing fast. I learned to wait, let the tension build, let it generate momentum. More got finished.

There's no single right way, in my opinion. You find your own side of the line. But just one small piece of advice: be sure, before you share, why you're sharing and if the people, those dear to your heart, are the best receivers.

Friday, February 12, 2021

A Different Way to Work with Revision for Your Book--Segments and Reverses

Revision is the final stage of the book journey, after the gathering of material and the forming of a rough draft, after the structuring that happens next. Revision is hard, but essential if you want to publish. And there are so many ways to go about it.

I think I've tried them all.

Some approaches to revision are so daunting, so discouraging. The worst one I've experienced is this: start with chapter 1 and go through the book, line by line. That is great for the final fine-tuning. But if you're trying to revise larger problems, such as structure, it'll bog you down in no time. Lots of writers come to me at this stage, saying how stuck they feel, how they hate their book, and how they want to give up. No wonder. I would too.

Friday, February 5, 2021

Unspoken Agreements and How They Drive Characters in Fiction and Memoir

In real life, people operate under unspoken agreements that try to keep the status quo--whether that status quo is calm or the opposite. I'm enjoying a winter novel by Frederik Backman, author of A Man Called Ove, that brilliantly depicts a group of characters acting in an unspoken agreement to preserve a town that's rent by scandal. Although a young girl is raped, there's also a hockey final coming, and the star player is the perp. Everyone, except a very honorable few, chose to ignore what happened and keep the team forefront. Backman ratchets the tension higher and higher until everything breaks apart and people have to face the falsity and injustice square on.

Unspoken agreements drive story. There's a real difference in how a character, or group of characters, "presents" to the world and how they really feel. The dichotomy is what creates that wonderful tension that keeps us reading.

Friday, January 29, 2021

Sinking into Winter: The Power of Rest and Retreat in the Writer's Life

I've just sent the revision of my third novel to my agent, and I'm at a loss. I sit, watching the snow fall outside my office window, wondering if I should pick up another project, read a book on writing, call someone. My agent is backlogged; she says she hasn't had so many manuscripts to read in a long time--thanks to the pandemic, we're all writing. So she may not have comments for a few weeks, if not longer.

It's been a huge push, I can fairly say, to get this manuscript ready for her. I'm disappointed not to get immediate feedback, but I also know better. I've worked on it for three years, after all, writing, revising, workshopping, and revising again. I can wait. Her feedback is always excellent. I estimate some parts of the novel have gone through thirty iterations and she'll have more to suggest, most likely.

Living with a book in process is not unlike having a three-year-old in your office 24/7, always chattering away, needing your attention. I resent it, I love it, I require it to stay creative.

Friday, January 22, 2021

Making Peace with Your Inner Critic: How to Stop Sabotaging Your Writing Life and Get Moving on That Book

If I had a way to capture the self-talk inside most writers' brains, as they sit down to do their writing practice, here's what I might hear:

“You need a lot more backstory here.”

“This section will take months of research. Stop writing and get started. It’ll be a good distraction.”

“You need to explain what your character is thinking here. Your writing isn’t good enough to just let the action show it.”

Friday, January 15, 2021

The Magic of Showing Up at the Page: How to Design or Refine a Writing Practice That Works for You

What's the difference between a writer who gets a book finished and a writer who never does? A writing practice.

Believe it--there's nothing more important.

Not talent, not a great idea. It's down to basics: putting self in chair, putting hands on keyboard or taking up the pen, and staying there past all the internal whining and doubt and misery to actually put words on the page.

But we all whine. We all get up and sharpen every pencil in the house sometimes, instead of writing. 
 
Or we toggle to Facebook and check our "likes." Or we watch the news, which is enough to put anyone off their creativity.

When this happens to me, as it has often in the past chaotic, upsetting weeks, I go to my bookshelves for motivation.

My favorite go-to books include Ron Carlson Writes a Story by Ron Carlson and Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert. So this past week, as temps got wackier and the news more difficult to watch, I sat to read them again.

Friday, January 8, 2021

Strange Alchemy--Creating the Weave of Conflict, Character, and Place in Your Fiction or Memoir

In pre-Covid times, I regularly visited friends in Boston to hear the legendary Boston Cecelia chorus perform each holiday season.

At one performance a few years ago, I remember how a soloist with a particularly liquid voice sang a few pieces, then disappeared into the rows of the alto section. I strained to hear her voice rise above the other altos--but it was impossible to distinguish. She blended so well, the group became one voice. Then she came to the front of the stage for another solo, and we fell back in astonishment once again.

In a way, her ability to stand out as well as blend into a larger voice is exactly what writers are trying to achieve with the three elements of conflict, character, and place.

Friday, December 18, 2020

Writing about Tough Subjects: Award-Winning Debut Memoirist Shares Her Process

Katherine Quie's memoir, Raising Will, Surviving the Brilliance and Blues of ADHD, received three golds in the Independent Book Publishers and Midwest Book Publishers awards this year. These awards were hard won for this first-time memoirist on two fronts: in navigating the challenges of parenting Will, her brilliant son, a blues musician who struggled with ADHD, and crafting of her and Will's story in a way that would benefit others.

Friday, December 11, 2020

What's at Stake? How to Ratchet Up the (Necessary) Tension in Your Book

Stories tell about dilemmas--someone facing a problem, someone learning, someone solving a mystery, someone growing. Dilemma is that question or quest your book addresses, small or large. Whether it's the best method of growing a bonsai garden or learning who killed the victim in a murder mystery or figuring out a new identity after a great loss, dilemma, also known as the dramatic arc, forms the path your reader travels through your book.