S is for “Show, Don’t Tell”

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My biggest bugaboo as a fiction writer is having to go back and rewrite whole paragraphs, and even whole scenes, because they too often tell, rather than show.  The notes I write to myself in the margins of almost every page of a first draft are the same, over and over:  Show don’t tell?  Show don’t tell?

I understand the concept, of course.  A reader needs to see a character living such-and-such experience rather than merely be told about it.  Long paragraphs of telling are tedious.  Those are the bits readers skip.

I guess that’s why, as I’m getting the first draft fleshed out, my inner editor hollers, Hey, what does this look like?  You’re not showing!

She reminds me almost constantly that I need to remember to show.

Don’t say, “Bub was angry.”   Show him throwing things, slamming doors, shouting with red face and bulging eyes, and maybe a tic.  Leave out the weak verbs.  Get rid of the passive voice.  Write actively.

I have to remind myself to look for all five senses.  It’s not just about what something looks like.  What does it smell like?  What about taste, touch, and sound?

But I also have to remind myself that too much description can be as bad or worse than not enough.  It’s all about balance.

Sometimes I wonder, Do I need to show this? It’s really a matter of judgment, isn’t it?  It seems to me that I have to trust my reader to be able to imagine certain details.  If s/he doesn’t see something exactly the way I’m envisioning it, as long as it’s not vital to the plot, then it really doesn’t matter.

Or does it?

R is for Recursive

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It’s time to come clean:  I’m not nuts about one of the bits of writing advice I keep hearing everywhere.

Just write.  It doesn’t matter if it stinks.  Just get it written.

Even a couple of the quotes I posted yesterday offer this advice, or something like it.

I just can’t buy into that philosophy.  I wish I could.  But I’m a recursive writer, and in fact I think many of us are recursive writers and it just goes against our nature to do it any other way.  I think that for recursive people, it’s not possible to do it any other way.

I regularly ask my students to list the steps in their writing processes, from the day they receive a writing assignment to the day they turn in a completed paper.  As it turns out, very few of them seem to incorporate any steps into their process that are very different from anyone else’s steps.  I’m pretty sure these steps are universal, whether one is writing a freshman paper in college or the Great American Novel.

As the students call out their steps, I write them all on the board:

Read.  Think.  Procrastinate.  Brainstorm.  Generate ideas.  Outline.  Write.  Read out loud.  Revise.  Proofread.  Spell-check.  Edit.  Check formatting.  Submit.

Sound familiar?  I’m going to guess yes.  If you’re a writer, yes.

These steps all invariably fall into three categories:

  1. Invention (aka prewriting)
  2. Drafting (aka writing)
  3. Revision (aka rewriting)

So here’s the zillion-dollar question:  Do you do these in order when you write?  What I mean by this is, do you do all of your brainstorming and invention, get all your ideas together, do all of your research, and then start writing?  Do you write a whole draft from beginning to end without getting writer’s block, without doing any further research, without stopping to come up with new ideas, without changing a single word?  Do you wait until you have a whole complete draft before you launch into the dreaded revision and editing process?

I’m going to guess that unless you’re Jack Kerouac, the answer to that is a big fat NO.

Nobody does that.

That’s because writing itself is a recursive process.

You get an idea (invention).  You jot it down (writing).  You get a few more ideas and jot those down (invention and writing).  These jottings are starting to look like a story, but man, that third paragraph needs to come sooner.  So you move it (revision).  Now there’s a gap where it used to be, so you sit and think about how to fill the gap (invention).  You write another paragraph (writing), but the opening sentence is off, so you go back and reword it (revision).  Meanwhile you realize that you really don’t know anything about X, and you’re going to have to do some googling before you can move the story forward (invention).  Then, as you’re chugging along (writing), you develop a terrible case of writer’s block.  And back to idea generation you go (invention).

Sound familiar?

That’s the recursive nature of writing.  It bounces back and forth between those three stages.

And it’s NORMAL.  Almost nobody writes in a completely linear fashion.

Yet the writerly advice persists:  Just get it written.  You can go back and fix it later.

It’s true—you can go back and fix it later.  In fact, you’ll have to.  The recursivity of writing is not a substitute for good, solid revision once a draft is complete.  But the fact is, nothing I’ve ever written using the “no matter how bad it is, at least you’ve written something” theory is worth a crap.  It always results in my making more work for myself, not less.

Good writing takes time, no matter where you spend that time—but I know that no matter how much research and planning I do ahead of time, I’m not going to get to the complete draft stage without engaging in a lot of recursiveness in between here and there.  And I’ve found that beating myself up for doing it that way—for breaking someone else’s “rules”—is a mistake.  I’m sure that method works well for some people, but it doesn’t work for me.

So here’s my theory:  There is no “right” way to get a draft done.

The “right” way to do it is your way.

So be bold.  Embrace your recursive self.

 

O is for Oneirology

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When I lay down to take a little nap before dinner, I still hadn’t yet decided what to write for today’s “O” post.

I slept for about an hour and a half, seemingly all of which was consumed with dreams.  Weird ones.

I rarely remember my dreams, so I immediately jotted down a few keywords and brief phrases so I wouldn’t forget (my short-term memory not being in even the same solar system as my long-term memory), and then I sat down and fleshed out everything I could remember.  Here’s the gist:

I was at a family reunion, but I didn’t know who most of the people were.  My cousin Susan was there, and my cousin Nancy and tons of other people I did know, but I also knew that even the ones I didn’t know were all family too.  I also didn’t recognize the house, which was huge and very opulent and dark.  I was in a big room furnished with several caskets and cribs, and it was hard to tell which was which.  They were all upholstered in maroon and looked very comfortable.

Two women I didn’t know were standing in a corner near a big roll-top desk, and one of them  was holding a tiny baby—a newborn in a yellow sleep-and-play suit.  I asked if I could hold him, and the woman said (not unkindly), “It’s a her, and no, it’s not a baby, it’s my mother.”  She explained that the “baby” had some kind of degenerative disease, like Alzheimer’s, except it didn’t just affect her mind, but her whole body.  That was why she was so tiny.

The baby’s head was deformed—huge in the back, tiny in the front—and she had only one eye; the other was just a blank, overgrown socket.  She also looked terribly  jaundiced.  I asked the woman if her mother (the baby) knew who she (the daughter) was—if the “baby” knew who anyone was—and she said, “no, there’s no recognition—I just tend to her needs.”

Something in the dream shifted, and I knew the reason I was there was that Tom and I were visiting someone .  My kids were all there, and we were all going to go to the beach—and I really wanted to go to the beach—but somehow I fell asleep, and when I woke up, nobody was around.  They had gone without me and I was all alone in this room full of caskets and cribs.

I found myself wandering around the house looking for someone.  Anyone.

In one room, I found someone on a bed, all covered up, crying.  I reached out a hand to try to comfort the person on the bed, and it turned out to be my mom.  She was dressed up for the family party in a black, blue, and white patterned blouse that she really did used to have, and we held hands and I asked what happened.  She said she and Dee (my aunt, her younger sister and best friend who in real life predeceased her by five years) had gotten into a terrible argument.

I didn’t question that Dee might have been alive at this party, even though I hadn’t seen her.  My mom covered herself back up and I left the room.

Then I was in a hallway, and as I passed by another open door, I saw that my mom was crying on the couch in that room.  I thought she had switched rooms because she wanted to be alone, so I kept walking—but then I passed another door and she was in that one, too, still crying, but this time I heard her say, “Dee, Dee,” and I realized that Dee was dead and my mom knew she was dead.

Then Tom was there again, back from the beach, and I was wearing two hats—a cloth bucket hat, yellow on the inside and white on the outside, with a straw wide-brimmed cowboy-type hat over it—and Tom wanted to wear one of them and I couldn’t decide which one to give him.  I took off the straw hat, since it was on top, but it was a struggle to separate them, and then I was left wearing only the bucket hat.  I was very uncomfortable (because a bucket hat really isn’t “me”) and it was also blinding (because it had no visor) and I didn’t like giving up the other hat.  I remember wondering why it was so suddenly bright, because the house had been so dark.  Where was I now?

And then I woke up.

One of my first thoughts upon waking up—aside from “whoa, that was weird”—was that I still didn’t have an “O” post, and I wondered if there might possibly be something about this dream that might be appropriate.

Of course.  Yes.  It was all about a family reunion at which I didn’t know most of the family members.  Sounds a lot like genealogy, right?  And after all, genealogy is the inspiration for my WIP, even though it’s fiction.

But nothing in the dream starts with O.  Nothing about dream analysis starts with O.

Or does it?  I started googling.

And you already know the answer:  The study of dreams is called Oneirology.

Talk about luck!

Do you remember your dreams?  Do they ever provide fodder for your writing?

 

WIP: Why I’m Writing this Book

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Someone asked me why I’m writing this book, and whether it’s a biography of my family.

There’s an easy answer to the second half:  No.

But it’s actually more complicated than that.  It’s true that I was inspired, and the book is inspired, by my mom’s family.  But it’s not a biography, nor is it a memoir.

I started with what my mom’s family started with:  Two young Polish immigrants coming to America in 1907.  The young woman comes in July; the young man, in November.  They’re both from the same part of Poland (the Russian partition), but from different towns; they don’t meet until after they arrive in America.  They marry in June of 1909 in New Jersey, where he works as a boilermaker for the railroad, and they have a couple of children.  Within a few years, he’s transferred to Jackson, Michigan; they live in a small bungalow in town and have several more children, and then in 1926, they move to a farm on the outskirts of town.

This much is all historically accurate.  My maternal grandparents did all of these things, and in these time frames.

But from that starting point, nearly everything in Eighteen Crossroads is entirely fictional.  Josef and Aniela don’t have the same number of children as my grandparents, nor the same configurations of children (x-many boys, x-many girls, born in x-years).  None of the second- or third-generation characters in the book are real people, and even where some version of some of the events in these stories did actually take place, those events have been fictionalized.  In most cases, they didn’t really happen, and in cases where they did happen, they didn’t happen to these people in these places.

For instance, one of my uncles did serve in Patton’s Third Army during WW2, and I’ve been told he fought at the Battle of the Bulge (a time and place in which one of my stories is set), but I know no more about my uncle’s service (or his life) than that.  I’m sure none of the events in the story in which the main character finds himself in those basic circumstances are remotely similar to the actual events of my uncle’s life.  It would be an incredible (and unlikely) coincidence if they were.

Similarly, I know my grandfather was conscripted into the Russian army, and that he was injured in battle due to a fall from a horse—but I don’t know when or where, or even in what conflict, he fought.  He did die as a result of his refusal to allow the amputation of his leg due to gangrene, and he did say that he came into this world with two legs and he was jolly well going to go out with two legs (actually I think the “jolly well” was probably tacked on by my mom), and my character Josef in the novel does all of these things.  But the fictional character isn’t my grandfather, and the story is not my grandfather’s story.  The fictional Josef is a different Josef altogether.

The point is, this novel is a work of fiction, and the characters who populate it are also fictional.

I am not writing it to tell my own Polish immigrant family’s story.  But I am writing it to tell a Polish immigrant family’s story.

Which leads me to the other half of my friend’s question:  Why am I writing this book?

My purpose is to explore issues of both human identity (removed from national identity and/or language and custom) and the formation of American identity as it develops over several generations.  I’m fascinated by the well-known “generation gaps” that seem so inevitable between parents, their children, and their grandchildren, even as the human condition–that is, the general experiences involved in simply being human–remain unchanging from one generation to the next and also across races, creeds, and cultures.  Why is it so hard for most of us to imagine our parents as eighteen-year-olds, or as children?  What defines family, other than genetics?

In the book, Aniela struggles with the difference between the American “Melting Pot” and what Poles referred to as “Russification” in the 19th and early 20th centuries, which was enforced by law.  There’s also a marked contrast between Poland and America, both politically and socially, as America was a country in need of people and in search of an identity, while Poland at that time (or more accurately, Polonia) was comprised of millions of people in the diaspora who identified as Poles but had no country to call home.

And finally, two or three or four generations removed from the immigrants themselves, do the American descendants of those immigrants have any connection at all to their ancestors’ roots?  — and should they?

The exploration of these questions, and others, is the reason I’m writing this novel.

And also . . well . . it’s fun.

Why do you write what you write?  What inspires you?

Evelyne Holingue

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