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Boiling It Down

Recently, I’ve posted two things that I firmly believe are the cornerstones of my fiction philosophy. First, writing must make me care. I need to care about character (most important) and then about their story. If I don’t care, you’re dead in the water. If you aren’t thinking about the emotional impact of your story, good luck to you in someone else’s inbox.

Second, fiction is a balance of action and information. Too much action and we don’t hook into the character or situation. (Especially if the breakneck action is at the beginning of your novel, like if you start with a hectic chase sequence, for example, we have a really hard time figuring out what’s going on or why.) Too much information (a first chapter where your character sits in their room thinking about his life, for example) and there’s no action, no plot, no forward momentum, and the whole thing drags. The two elements must always be in balance. In times when there’s a lot of information being introduced, you must also keep your characters moving. You can’t indulge in an info-dump. In times of action, you must also work hard to keep us invested by giving us context and information (later on in the novel, once character and situation are established, this usually means emotional context, ie: interiority).

I was at the Rutgers One-on-One Conference this past weekend, in a roundtable discussion with super agent Tina Wexler from ICM. We were talking about novel beginnings and, of course, I sprouted off my “action vs. information” line. Then Tina put the missing piece together and it fit perfectly: “But it needs to have emotion, too. Emotion is the third point of that triangle.”

I made a joke at the time about really working a metaphor to death, but a lightbulb definitely went off because of her comment, and now I think I have the perfect image for my two most important tenets of writing.

If fiction is a balance of action and information, the axis of the scale, the part that holds everything else together, is emotion. Without emotion to lord over the work and to keep everything else in check, your whole manuscript falls apart. (And you do not get to hold the Sword of the Awesome Manuscript.)

We should always be in touch with your character’s emotions (especially if you are writing in third person, as that is a challenge for many) and they should be legible and resonant for readers. Whether you’re writing a scene of action or dropping information in your manuscript, keep in mind your characters’ interiority (thoughts, feelings, reactions) near the surface. You can even indulge in some strategic Good Telling.

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This post will be a short one but it strikes at, I think, the very heart of fiction. What is your number one objective as a writer?

To make your reader feel.

Whenever I speak about queries at conferences, I always have one request: Make me care. This is the same idea. I want to feel my interest piqued with the query. I want to feel something, even if it’s just a stirring of feeling or concern or nervousness or longing. Most queries fail to elicit even one feeling (other than boredom).

The manuscript itself, however, has to do much more than just make a reader care (though that’s an excellent starting point, and it will set you apart from most readers). When your character  — who is the focal point of our feelings and our gateway into the story — feels hurt, the reader should ache. When they fall in love, the reader should feel her heart quicken. When they think all is lost, the reader should reach for the Ben & Jerry’s.

If you’re not going to be manipulating your reader’s emotions and taking your audience on a journey of feelings, thoughts, and realizations, what’s the point?

How do you make your readers feel emotion? You do it through crafting a character with feelings and goals, and also by knowing your own feelings. At the VCFA Alumni Mini-Residency I attended this July in Vermont, COUNTDOWN author and master writer Deborah Wiles said the following:

Allow your character’s heart to break. How? Know thyself. Feel what you feel. Allow yourself your heartache. Share it with your character. Heal together.

As your character encounters a thrilling roller coast of emotional ups and downs, of victories and disappointments, you must always be thinking of their emotions. How are they reacting to this event? How are they interpreting it? What is the emotional context? Where do they think they go from here? Use your character’s interiority.

More importantly, use your own emotions and thoughts as guides for what your character is going through. That will lend your writing truth. Pour your heart out a little bit. Always think of the character’s feelings (usually a version of your own) and the feelings you want to evoke in the reader.

Readers expect to pick up a book and be transported and transformed, not only to another world or time or unique point of view, but to emotional places own hearts, minds, and lives.

Last week, I watched The Notebook for the first time, just because it was so wildly popular and I wanted to see how it was put together. (I didn’t much care for it but that’s beside the point.) Has anyone ever recommended this particular movie to you? If you’re a woman and you have girlfriends that are crazy about it, what did they say to convince you to watch?

I bet it wasn’t, “You’ll really love the dialogue” or, “You should see how the filmmakers introduce the complication of the rich fiancé.” It could just be my own experience here, but the only thing anyone ever told me about The Notebook (and this came from about ten different people) is:

“It will make you cry your face off.”*

Readers couldn’t care less about the craft and framework behind a tale when emotions are in the mix. (You, of course, have to care very much about it, as the writer, but that’s another story.)

Emotion is going to be your reader’s biggest takeaway…and their biggest expectation when they’re considering reading a book. And if you do it right — if you write a book that’s not only cathartic for your character and your reader but for you, too — you will definitely give your readers a journey they won’t forget.

* My eyes stayed dry and my face intact, unfortunately. Incidentally, some things that do make me cry: Swing Kids, Titanic, the second half of the BBC Office Christmas special, the last scene in The Royal Tenenbaums (happy tears), “Levon” by Elton John, BEFORE I DIE by Jenny Downham, IF I STAY by Gayle Forman, LOVE, AUBREY by Suzanne LaFleur, WHEN BLUE MET EGG by Lindsay Ward, THE VELVETEEN RABBIT, the scene with Harry’s family near the end of HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS, etc.

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Most writers I know are avid readers. I have been for as long as I can remember. I read so much as a child that my mother often scolded me, saying things like, “You spend too much time sitting around with your nose in a book. Get up and DO SOMETHING!”

But I WAS doing something. I was learning how to be a writer. Without even realizing it, I was studying how writers use language, create tension, bring characters to life, etc. All that reading expanded my vocabulary, refined my literary tastes, and taught me genre-specific conventions. And the best part? My education-by-osmosis was not only painless, it was pleasurable.

When I eventually went to the Vermont College of Fine Arts (then called simply Vermont College) to work on an MFA in Writing, I learned a more direct approach to my education as a writer. At the beginning of each semester in the program, I was required to create a personal reading list pertinent to my writing goals. The list included books on craft as well as children’s/young adult books in the genre I was writing. Each month, I then had to write two critical essays discussing what I had learned from my reading.

Often, it wasn’t until I sat down to write those essays that I recognized what I had absorbed.

I know the essays were the bane of some of my fellow students. But for me, the process of organizing my thoughts about a book I’d read and then putting those thoughts into writing led me to new insights—insights I might never have discovered by osmosis alone. (For an example of how this works, see the Writing Workout below.) Perhaps this is one of the reasons so many writers are also bloggers—the web has become a place to organize our thoughts and share our insights about both reading and writing.
Since graduating from VCFA, “Reading as a writer” has become second nature to me, even when I’m reading “for fun.”

I also continue to choose books that will help me learn specific techniques. I recently read the young-adult novel The Vanishing Point: A Story of Lavinia Fontana by Louise Hawes, one of my teachers at VCFA. Fontana was a Renaissance artist who lived in 16th-century Bologna, and the novel is a fictionalized account of her adolescence. My current writing project is a historical novel set in 18th-century Italy, and is also based on the life of a real woman of the time. While reading Hawes’s novel, I studied how she wove in setting details specific to the time period along with known facts from Lavinia Fontana’s life. The book taught me a great deal!

Next time you practice “reading as a writer,” consider trying the following Writing Workout to deepen your experience:

Writing Workout: Reading as a Writer

In preparation for “reading as a writer,” decide what aspect of writing you will study. For example, you may choose to focus on characterization, dialogue, description, plot, setting, use of flashbacks, etc. When I started at VCFA, I knew one of the shortcomings in my own writing was a lack of specific detail. So, in my first two semesters, I read to study how authors incorporated details into their writing.

Ideally, you will read the book you are studying more than once. The first time is to simply enjoy the story. However, if you’re pressed for time, you can read for pleasure and analyze at the same time.

If you are able, purchase a paperback copy of the book you’ve chosen. With a highlighting pen, mark occurrences of the technique you are studying. For example, while studying the use of details, I highlighted every use of sensory detail that I found. (If you’re working with a borrowed book, then take notes describing each occurrence of the technique. Make sure to include the corresponding page numbers.)

Doing the above alone will likely be an eye-opening experience. But to take this exercise a step further, write a 300-800 word essay or blog post discussing what you learned from your reading. Your essay should include some of the examples you highlighted in the text. Important: be sure to discuss how you will apply what you learned to your own writing. And don’t forget—you can learn as much, if not more, from a book you don’t like as from one you do.

Carmela Martino writes fiction, non-fiction, and poetry for readers of all ages. She also teaches writing classes for children and adults. Her first published novel for children, ROSA, SOLA (Candlewick Press), began as her creative thesis while pursuing an MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults at Vermont College. Over ten years after graduating from the program, Carmela remains close to her classmates from VCFA. (Her class was nicknamed “The Hive” and they continue to “buzz” via daily emails and periodic reunions.) She blogs regularly with three of those classmates at www.TeachingAuthors.com, a blog by six children’s authors who also teach writing. To read more about Carmela and her work, visit her website, http://www.carmelamartino.com. You can also contact her there if you have any questions or comments about her post or Vermont College.

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The penultimate workshop for this series comes from Darcy.

“So? Have you thought about it long enough yet?” The question startled me so much I dropped my spoon full of granola into my bowl. Soy milk splashed up onto my chin and the front of my sweater, and Pepper barked from where she was sitting under my chair. Peter had a habit of slipping into a room without anyone noticing. He was stealthy like that. I made a face Poppy would have called “The Evil Eye” and threw it at him.

This is a classic jarring beginning that I see a lot. Unattributed dialogue to begin is always dicey, since we don’t know the characters. And we could literally be anywhere, talking to anyone, about anything. It does nothing to ground the reader. We learn nothing about the character from her reaction, either, as she is just startled. We get the soy milk detail and the little puppy with the preppy name. We also get some attitude, but we don’t get the main character and Peter’s relationship, which is a weakness for the rest of the scene. Also, the Poppy/Pepper names are too close for me. For a second, I thought, “Wait, how does she know what the dog is thinking?” There’s so much and it’s so disorienting that I don’t even have enough bandwidth left over to focus on what the “it” in the first sentence is, which the writer is trying to set up as the source of tension.

“Woah. What’s with the Evil Eye? This is your Primary Present we’re talking about,” said Peter.

Perhaps I was a bit hasty with the Evil Eye look. I quickly tried to make it up to him.

She knows what he’s asking about, so I don’t get why she gives him the Evil Eye and then recants. The “Primary Present” line, as a result, seems like it’s for the reader’s benefit…to introduce the idea to the reader instead of aim for organic dialogue. Please also notice how old you think this character is…

“Sorry, Peter,” I said. I got up from my seat and retrieved my super special bought-it-with-my-own-money chocolate granola from the pantry. “Would you like some granola for breakfast?” I asked sweetly.

Peter laughed. “That,” he said, pointing to my Delightfully Chocolate-y granola, “is not breakfast. This is breakfast.” He grabbed a package of whole wheat bagels from the fridge and held them high like he had just caught a 30-pound salmon and was showing it off. I shrugged. He had a point. If I ran out of my chocolate granola I would probably take a whole wheat bagel instead.

We get no information about what their relationship is. As I’m reading this, with an eye trained by tens of thousands of kidlit novel beginnings, I’m thinking she’s a 14/15 y.o. snotty (and a bit manipulative) teen and he’s her obnoxious older brother, who’s your typical carbo-loading dude. Plus, why does the writer spend so much time gloating over the granola if the character would just as soon ditch it for a bagel? It told me something about the character, at least, until she was like, “But it doesn’t matter because I can do a bagel, too.” What’s the point of establishing it and then devaluing it right away? Now it is a meaningless detail.

Having settled the breakfast food question I returned to my granola while Peter poured himself a cup of coffee. “You still haven’t answered my question, Beatrix” he pointed out.

Rats. I had been hoping the Great Granola vs. Bagel debate would distract him. The fact was I had not thought long enough about my Primary Present yet. I wasn’t any closer to a decision that day than I was a month earlier and I had to come up with something quick. My deadline was just around the corner.

I’m confused as to what this Primary Present issue is. Is it just a present? Seems that way. (You never know with all the dystopian plots going around…it could be something more serious.) But, for now, I really don’t get what the big deal is. Someone is trying to do something nice for Beatrix…so why is she acting so weird and cagey about it? Those stakes are extremely low. Even saying something like “The Great Granola vs. Bagel debate,” an attempt at high stakes language, doesn’t raise stakes because we saw the debate…and it wasn’t that big a deal. Giving us a sense of why she’s avoiding it, and giving her a specific deadline (not the vague “just around the corner”) would give the writer a stronger position but I’m still not sure the premise is tense enough. Also, do a comma between “Beatrix” and the end quote in the first paragraph.

Each year for My Birthday/Christmas Peter always bought me a lot of nice presents: books, art supplies, music CD’s. He would buy them all year round and then give them to me on December 25th. That was the day we celebrated my birthday and Christmas too, of course. Those small things were all my Secondary Presents. Then there was my Primary Present. The Primary Present was always something super special. I could ask for anything I wanted as long as it could not be wrapped. Every year I tried to stump Peter and see if I could come up with something that he couldn’t pull off, but he always came through.

Now it seems like Peter is a parent figure? Still very unclear, because he acts like a macho teen boy. The presents he’s bought are vague and missed opportunities to provide character details. I’d also quibble with “music CDs”: first, you don’t need the apostrophe, second, it’s redundant, just say “CDs,” third, CDs aren’t as popular/relevant these days. Again, it sounds like what Peter does is really nice, so I have no idea why she’s avoiding the issue. It’s like me refusing a spa treatment. Really?

Last year he took me and my best friend Poppy to New York City for the day and we had high tea at Bergdorf Goodman and tried on shoes we could never possibly buy. Then we went on a horse and carriage ride through Central Park. That one was extra special because it was my tenth birthday. This year, my eleventh birthday, doesn’t seem so special on the calendar, and I’d already tried everything I could think of up to this birthday to try as a Primary Present.

Aside from two mentions now, we haven’t really seen Poppy, so is she really necessary to cram in there right now or can she be introduced with more context later? The biggest shocker, to me, was the character’s age. Her voice right now is a bit like GOSSIP GIRL meets Samantha-from-Sex-in-the-City. She’s jaded, really self-aware (a more adult trait), manipulative around men, and loves a good pair of Manolos. And I’m supposed to buy that she’s ten? Sure, maybe in the world of Toddlers and Tiaras but I read too much middle grade to really have this voice for this age ring true. And know that readers for a 10 y.o. character will be younger (since kids always read up), so an 8 y.o. from the general reading pool wouldn’t really bond with this character, I don’t think.

So here we have some voice issues, some stakes issues, some characterization issues, and some context issues. Overall, I would take another run at this beginning with clarity in mind, and, depending on the plot, age the character up to 15 or 16. It would be much easier to write to your voice instead of trying to change your voice to fit the character…here, it’s clearly a much more adult voice than the writer is aware of, I think. This is not a glowing workshop, I’m afraid, but there’s a lot to take away here, and I applaud the writer for volunteering!

ETA: Deleted the present could/couldn’t be wrapped note because I missed it! Sorry all, and thanks for your eagle eyes!

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This workshop piece comes from Michele Tennant. Enjoy!

Dylan pushed off the sidewalk with his black Converse high-tops. Beneath him the wheels on his skateboard whirred. Tiny bumps on the concrete beneath sent vibrations up his legs. The only voice in his head was his own.

The Converse shoe is a “hi-top” (and they often call them Chucks…as a former punk kid/skate rat, I try to be aware of these things). The second sentence reads awkwardly. There’s a simpler way to say it, and the syntax is off. Not sure why you need to say that “The only voice in his head was his own.” I should hope so…whose else is in there? Doesn’t need explaining.

“Okay, folks you’re in for a treat,” Dylan mumbled under his breath. He mimicked the roar of a crowed stadium. “thirteen year old Dylan Davis will now be attempting the laser flip. Let’s hope he doesn’t scrape any freckles off on the pavement.”

Capitalized “Thirteen” here. When I talk about mimetic writing, I want you to be aware of what the character is doing. If he’s skating, he’s working out. The freckles/pavement line is too long for someone out of breath…

Another push and Dylan picked up speed. The crisp morning air stung his eyes making them water. Dylan breathed in the smell of damp pavement and lilac blossoms and saw a flash of red across the street. Katie Jordan had stepped off the curb. She was fresh and clean and dressed for work.

I’d put a comma between “eyes” and “water.” Good smell detail, though. We usually ignore that sense. “She was fresh and clean and dressed for work” is not something I’d imagine a 13 y.o. skate kid saying about a woman. The voice is too adult and too female. I would’ve also loved more context for who Katie is…a teacher? A neighbor? Mrs. Robinson?

She smiled and waved, and a breeze blew her flowing red skirt up just high enough for Dylan to get a glimpse of the black lace on her slip beneath. He waved back. Still following her with his eyes, he pushed off the ground again. One of the wheels struck a pebble. The board wobbled precariously causing Dylan to flail his arms as he steadied himself.

Would a 13 y.o. boy know what a slip is? This lacy peek is a bit sexy in this context, and we still don’t know who Katie is, so I don’t quite understand it yet. That description is not in voice, again, and the first sentence is overlong. I’d also use “underneath” here. We’ve got a bit of play-by-play narration going on here…you’re tracking what’s happening very closely, but I’m not sure we need all these details described so thoroughly. “Causing” is a very dry voice word, esp. for a 13 y.o. boy narrator. “Steadied” too.

He glanced back, hoping Katie hadn’t seen. Thankfully, she had bent to pick up the Sunday newspaper.

Up the street Dylan heard an engine rev.

Come on focus, he told himself. A little faster now . . . What did Jason say? Push off, jump, flip and land. Landing, that’s the part I’m worried about.

Is he just skating for the sake of skating or is there something coming up that he’s practicing for? A competition? The Impress The Older Lady Olympics? You could frame what he’s doing and why to give us more stakes for this practice session. “Thankfully” not in voice here. Overall, I’m really not getting a 13 y.o. boy sense from the prose. Try reading it aloud. Really get into your boy’s character.

A black SUV sped past Dylan. He turned to see it bump up over the curb and onto the sidewalk. There stood Katie, hand in her open mailbox, frozen, her eyes wide.

We don’t really get the danger in this description. Is it weaving? Does it narrowly miss him? One moment it “sped,” the next moment it is on a rampage. You could build up this moment more so that it’s not a jarring surprise to the reader, who wasn’t expecting this. It’s an issue of tone.

The newspaper dropped from Katie’s fingertips. Dylan opened his mouth to warn her, as he did the skateboard stopped abruptly. A jolt shuddered through Dylan’s body. He was propelled forward like a test dummy. The world flew past; Katie’s frightened face, the SUV, houses, trees, picket fence, sidewalk, sky.

The second sentence is clunky and an awkward transition. The test dummy image is a bit of a cliché. Like the snatches of images…they’re mimetic of what’s going on.

Dylan found himself on his back in the damp concrete culvert. All he could hear was the whoosh, whoosh, whooshing of the blood rushing through his veins. His body felt disconnected, numb and cold and a salty, metallic taste filled his mouth. He spit a mixture of blood and saliva onto the pavement beside him.

“Found himself” is a rather mild way of putting it. I’d switch out something with more impact. (Get it? Because he just hit the ground?) These sentences are a bit dry for something so intense. The syntax of “numb and cold and a salty” is off to me. Also, there has been no interiority in terms of his thoughts. Have your character react to what’s going on…a lot has just happened…where’s his head in all this?!

Taking a deep breath, Dylan struggled to lift his right arm. It wouldn’t budge. With his left elbow he managed to army crawled up the muddy, moss covered concrete to the sidewalk. There on the blacktop lay Katie’s mangled body. Her arms and legs stuck out at odd angles and a puddle that matched her skirt was slowly spreading around her. A dull hum filled his ears. It was as if someone had pushed the mute button for the whole planet.

Could use more thoughts. Like the last image very much. If we knew more about his relationship (or lack thereof) with Katie, we would care a lot more when she gets whalloped. It’s all about context. This might be a bit graphic, depending on the rest of the story, for MG. Also, good job starting right off with some action!

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Today’s workshop comes from S.E. Sinkhorn. Let’s just dive right in!

Two hours before I learned my father had been found dead by the side of the lake, I sat on my favorite park bench and sketched an eye. A beak. A crest. The pages of my book were bronze in the autumn sunlight.

Like the bronze image. The first sentence packs a punch but is perhaps too long to really focus us. The writer throws a lot of information into that one and I don’t know where to really look. Good tension, though, but could it be more specific? “Found dead” is vague. Murdered? Found dead by his own hand?

No indication the hopeful lantern I’d kept burning inside me for four years had gone out. Only feathers attached to skin fused to muscle stitched to bone. My pencil didn’t even twitch as my entire world shifted. I just couldn’t feel it yet.

“Hopeful lantern” sounds very lovely, but is vague. Does this refer to the dad? Or another hopeful lantern about something else? Be more specific, as it’s too ethereal now.  I like the idea of something happening that’s huge, but the character not knowing it yet. This does tell us, though, that she’s relating this story from some future vantage point and I wonder how far back she’s looking…I’m wondering why birds are so important.

So I continued as I always did, enjoying my small patch of life between the lifeless brown buildings, and waited for my brother to meet me. The L-train’s sooty air was a distant backdrop. For a moment, I could pretend to be somewhere else. Someone else.

Not sure about “the L-train’s sooty air was a distant backdrop,” there’s something off to me about it. Maybe something like “a cloud of soot rose from a passing L-train” or something. Air being a backdrop stopped me. I was probably also thinking of the L train subway that runs from Manhattan to Brooklyn, which doesn’t emit soot. :) Maybe it’s also because I don’t quite know the time setting. The fashion details below hint at like turn of the 20th century, but “lifeless brown buildings” seems too reminiscent of mid-20th century urban architecture. The idea of a city being lifeless is also a bit modern in tone.

The moment didn’t last long.

Heavy footfalls clacked their way up the path toward me, startling the cardinals I’d been drawing into a flurry of red wings. A pair of expensive leather boots filled their place in my field of vision. I sighed and snapped my sketchbook closed. My gaze followed the boots up to find their owner clad in the height of Parisian fashion, down to her ebony-colored walking gown and gloves trimmed with pearl buttons. An emerald and gold choker winked at me from her pale neck, clashing horribly with the black.

This description really doesn’t work for me. It gives the character’s eyeballs a video camera feel. They are zooming and panning in on parts, not the whole. That’s a very cinematic description but I’d rather see the whole picture than just boots, then ankles, then gown, etc. It’s fragmented and uses a visual technique that doesn’t carry across well on page as opposed to screen. I want to see Mirabelle as much more whole when we first meet her. We also get no interiority. I can tell the two girls don’t like one another, but a thought or a reaction to this girl showing up could add another layer. I’m also not crazy about footfalls clacking. It’s a sound, and the writer is giving it almost a physical presence which it just doesn’t have.

“Hello, Mirabelle,” I said.

Her smile curved like a scythe as she brushed a cinnamon curl behind her ear. A set of parasols twitched behind her, attached to the day’s pair of sycophantic companions.

“Clara, darling. Playing with your friends again?” Mirabelle said. I imagined her circling me like a pack dog.

The antagonism between Mirabelle and Clara is thick here, but overwritten. We get the scythe image, then circling, then dog. The writer is working a little too hard to make sure we GET IT. No need to be overwrought. The line about “sycophantic companions” is great but it also sounds really modern-sarcasm to me. Like, I’d imagine Daria saying something like that (yeah, that’s right, I just pulled “Daria” out of my hat), so it adds to my confusion about time period and period voice.

“I was enjoying the company of creatures I didn’t have to bully or buy, yes,” I said.

One of the other girls gasped in exaggerated offense, but Mirabelle scarcely batted an eye. “Oh, my dear, you must do better than that. Sharpen your tongue for my father’s gala this evening, for I expect far wittier repertoire.”

I bit the inside of my cheek and didn’t respond.

I’m getting much more authentic period voice in the dialogue. It’s still catty, sure, but the syntax is more stylized than the prose/descriptions. Like the bully/buy line.

Mirabelle put her hand to her chest and painted her face with a near-convincing expression of concern. “But you must have received an invitation! All of Chicago’s finest will be there. Surely it’s been long enough since your father walked out that the scandal has died down.”

A slow eruption of nervous laughter swelled behind her. There’s never anything quite like having an audience to one’s humiliation. Familiar heat began to creep up my neck.

“There’s never anything quite like having an audience to one’s humiliation” is great period voice, and it’s also great interiority. The dialogue is a bit for the reader’s benefit (a way to introduce the father detail) and it reminds us of the opening, but I might let it stay. (My objection would be that characters who know one another this well don’t usually repeat such basic biographical details in conversation…it’s not organic.)

“I’ve no interest in attending your father’s garish parties. If you’re quite finished, I’m meeting my brother at four o’clock, and I’ll take your leave.” I stood and walked past the she-wolf and her lapdogs.

When I was a few steps away, she called, “Perhaps your mother might like to attend. She could finally admit her infidelity and beg a proposal from whoever sired your sister. It would be the highlight of the evening.”

Working too hard again on the “she-wolf and her lapdogs” line. Also, this clashes with the similar-yet-different “pack dog” image earlier. Love the last diss! It’s so catty it reminds me of THE LUXE series.

Overall, some strong writing, but the first two paragraphs don’t match the rest. There’s some tension there, but I don’t know if it’s specific enough or, yet, how it relates. I hope she finds out about the dead body soon. The period was also confusing. The character’s sarcasm and observations struck me as very modern, but the style of dress and some of the dialogue was obviously period. For historical, if this is indeed historical, this is a crucial voice issue to nail.

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The first beginning workshop comes from O’Dell Hutchinson for a WIP called “The Weeping.” Without further ado, here is my feedback on O’Dell’s beginning!

It was hot. The acrid smell of smoke filled her lungs, singeing them with every breath. Her head was spinning. She could hear people screaming. A man with a deep, booming, voice was yelling, telling everyone to stay calm and move toward the exit.

“It was hot” could be a first line to anything. A breezy summer beach read. A Southern gothic. It’s a fire, of course it’s hot. I’m looking for a first line with a little more bang here. There’s also a passive voice issue.

“Phillip?” she choked out.

“Phillip!” she screamed again.

The dialogue tags are overwritten here. We don’t know who Phillip is, also. Maybe some context.

Had he managed to get out? Was he searching for her? When the smoke started billowing on to the stage, everyone scattered, knocking her to the ground. It barely took any time at all for the smoke to take over, and the screaming to start. She pulled herself up and walked to what she thought was stage left. There was an exit backstage. If she could just get to the exit.

The writer does a great job of starting in action. We also get some interiority about Phillip here, which is good. But I’m missing a lot of context, ie: who is Phillip, how did the fire start, etc.

She pulled the skirt of her costume over her nose to help block the smoke, but it wasn’t working. The air around her swirled in misty curtains of black and grey. She couldn’t see where she was going. Her eyes stung and it took everything she had to keep them open. She tripped over something. Was it a set piece? A body? She couldn’t tell; the smoke was too thick.

Now we lose the interiority. What if it was a body? What thoughts would cross her mind? Does she think about dying? What does it feel like to not be able to breathe? There’s action and a very visceral setting but I’m not quite feeling what I would imagine it feels like to be in a hot, hot fire yet.

She inched her way toward what she thought would be the exit. She closed her eyes and followed the screams of the terrified people scrambling to get out of the theatre. They seemed to be coming from everywhere.

Multiple mentions of screaming already, getting redundant. Also, screaming people are usually terrified, so there some overstating of the obvious.

There was a sudden burst of heat in front of her. Unbearable heat. She took a step back, away from the flames that were closing in on her. She was afraid of falling off the stage and into the orchestra pit, so she got down on her hands and knees and crawled. She pulled herself forward with one hand, the other clutching her dress to her nose.

Not getting a true burst. The narrative voice is even-handed and calm and the sentences are long…not exactly what you’d expect during a scene that describes someone fleeing for their life. Check out the post on mimetic writing

The screams had faded and now seemed to be coming from outside. They were mixed with the sound of sirens. She felt a touch of relief. The firemen were here. They would put out the fire. They would save her.

Again, the interiority and almost nonchalance of the narrative voice don’t add up to a lot of tension for me. If I was about to be rescued from an inferno, I wouldn’t exactly feel just “a touch of relief.” By now, also, I invite you to note that we haven’t learned a single thing about this character other than she does theatre and she’s currently in a fire. There have been no characterizing details that reveal her to us as a person.

Something cracked and was followed by a loud crashing sound. The stage shook beneath her as whatever it was hit the floor. She started to panic again. The building was coming down. She quickly crawled forward, feeling her way around the stage, doing her best to maneuver around set pieces and fallen props.

Throughout the piece, we also have some play-by-play narration that is contributing to the passive voice. We don’t need every single movement described here.

The stage lights above her started to pop, sparkling through the smoke as they briefly lit up before shattering. It was as if she were being photographed by a swarm of photographers. Paparrazi documenting the every move of an eighteen-year-old girl as she fought for her life. She felt a sharp pain shoot up through her hand as she crawled over shards of glass from the broken bulbs.

An interesting image that fits in well with the performer part of the story so far.

There was another crack, this time directly above her. She looked up in time to see a beam, lit with flames, falling toward her. She tried to roll out of the way, but it caught her ankle, trapping her as it ignited her petticoat. She let out one more cry for help as the flames danced up her legs. She tried to move, but the beam held fast. She was going to die. The heat enveloped her and she did the only thing she could do. She wept.

The thoughts, memories, and prayers going through her head at this point would be extremely telling in terms of character. Not giving us interiority here is a huge missed opportunity.

Overall, there are some definite strengths: starts with action, a visceral scene with lots of tension. But there is also room for growth: we need a lot more about the character, we need interiority, we need some more action in the writing voice itself, and less static description. It’s not that the writer isn’t describing action–there’s a lot of stuff going on–but it’s the style of the description that’s passive and a bit flat.

I hope that seeing how I think about this beginning as I read it will help you look at your own beginnings and your own writing craft. I look forward to posting more beginnings this week and next!

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In an effort to dodge the “show, don’t tell” bullet, a lot of writers have taken the external route in conveying the emotions of their character. As I’ve said before, there’s Bad Telling, and there’s Good Telling. Bad telling deals with you just stating a fact about your character and then taking all the fun out of reading for your audience. Good telling involves using story context and, more importantly, interiority, to paint a three-dimensional picture where you make your reader feel like a savvy part of the story experience, but you don’t exclude them from participating, either.

Here’s an example of Bad Telling:

It was the last night of the play. Moxie felt sad as she lined up for the final curtain call. There would be no more stolen moments with Tobin. No more excuses for her to look at him as he performed the role of Hamlet. Just like the real Shakespearean Hamlet and Ophelia were doomed, so was Moxie’s crush. Tears sprung to her eyes. She didn’t know what she’d ever do tomorrow night without all this.

Here’s an example of Good Telling, using the principles of interiority:

The heavy red curtain cut them off from the audience and the lights. Moxie stood, feeling heavy and rooted to the stage, and looked around, her eyes adjusting to the darkness as the clapping started in the house. This was it. The last curtain call. The last time she’d teeter on the brink of insanity as Ophelia. The last time she’d peek out from the wings and watch the audience nod along and mouth the words as Tobin, with a deep, slow breath, launched into the “To be or not to be” soliloquy. The last time she’d get to tape the fake blood packet into his vest backstage, right before he went off to his fateful last duel scene. Moxie snapped to attention as the curtain swung up again. Tobin materialized beside her and grabbed her hand. The last time for that, too. When would she ever have such a perfect excuse again? The audience beyond the footlights, clapping and shouting, blurred, and she threw on her most dazzling smile, blinking away the tears.

Now, whether you think the sample itself is “good” or not, you can see that you got more insight into Moxie’s character, into the context of her situation, and into the specifics of her emotions with the second example than you did with the Bad Telling snippet.

Let me introduce you, then, to another version of Bad Telling: Physical Telling.

The drape lowered on the scene, giving Tobin enough time, Moxie knew, to get out of his royal casket and join the rest of the cast for curtain call. She wiped at her eyes, hoping she wasn’t smearing her make-up. Her heart hammered, but it wasn’t the rush of finishing the show. Not this time. She hugged herself, her arms crossed tight. Tobin jogged up, fixing her with a dazzling smile. He tilted his head. There was a twinkle in his eye, something she couldn’t quite read. She relaxed her arms. Her hand grabbed his. The curtain swung up again and she felt a flush creeping up her cheeks.

Now. This is more subtle. There’s nothing technically wrong with this sample. Some might even find it well-written. Well, this is my blog, and you come here to hear what I have to say about stuff. And I am sick of Physical Telling. Over it. If you disagree, another blog is just a click away. (Don’t worry, this isn’t just a rant…I will also explain my reasoning.)

First, the above is full of physical clichés. “She wiped at her eyes” isn’t telling per se, but it is such a cliché gesture for “Alert! Alert! Moxie is crying! Get it?!” that it might as well be telling. If I was to go on an actual stage and wipe my eyes to convey that my character is sad, or check my watch and tap my foot to convey impatience, a director would yell at me for being way too obvious. Instead of a director, you have me to yell at you.

Per my earlier post about physical clichés, you’ll also know that what hearts, mouths, lungs, stomachs, and hearts do on the page is also, more often than not, a cliché. Hearts hammering, guts rumbling, smiles half-creeping up faces, eyes twinkling, all of that. Ugh. So if we can’t “show” a character tapping their foot with impatience, maybe we can tell the reader that their stomach is tightening in anticipation of being late. Maybe that will be better!

Wrong. Because someone was once told “show, don’t tell,” and then was told “don’t use cliché gestures,” they have now started telling readers about the status of their main characters’ internal organs. Awesome! Except I’m not a doctor with a chart. I don’t care about the status of each little hunk of tissue on your main character’s body. It’s when a writer starts telling me about guts and hearts and lungs and eyes that I most frequently highlight that section and write, “Interiority instead!” in my notes. Put that on a notecard and tape it to your monitor if you have this problem: Interiority instead!

This brings me to another specific subset of Physical Telling (you can read about another post in this vein, Putting On Airs, from earlier). It’s when writers realize that stomach- and heart-status is cliché, so they move on to looks and gazes and twinkles of eyes and other body language cues.

People writing anything with a romantic connection, listen up! Moments where you have your two romantic interests together are prime offenders in this vein. How do you convey chemistry without describing eyes lighting up and blushes and tilts of the head? I don’t know. You’re the writer. But don’t resort to the tired old fallbacks.

Why are we so good at these descriptions? Think about where we see them (key word here: see). That’s right. We’re visual creatures. When we watch movies or TV or interact with other human beings, these looks and tilts and subtle shifts in body language are glaringly clear. “Ah, he’s tipping his head ever so slightly when he talks to the girl he likes, that must mean he likes her, too…squeeee!”

But what works well on the screen doesn’t always translate to the page. Those looks that we’re so good and so hardwired to interpret when we see them don’t necessarily convey the same information when we read them. Sometimes things are hard to read when we’re reading, yeah? And sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words, and we don’t have one thousand words to spill on describing a lovelorn tilt of the head.

Some things work on the page, others not so much. And the page is not a physical realm. Sure, some writing can be very visceral, and we can describe lots of action, but I don’t personally believe that the seat of emotion – as it is conveyed in writing – lives in the physical body of your characters. I’m always a fan of “interiority instead!” and of mixing the character’s inner life (and not their organs’ inner life) with what’s going on, plot-wise.

This is just one way to convey emotion. I happen to think it’s the right way. But, as such, I’m thrilled to start the conversation about Physical Telling and how it relates to “show, don’t tell.” What are your thoughts? Taps foot, checks watch, tilts head and glares.

ETA: JH’s point well-taken, I’ve added to the example of Bad Telling. Thanks, JH!

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This question came to me from Janelle months ago. Now I wanted to get right into it:

Is there really a difference between telling (vs. showing) and internal monologue that states how someone is feeling? Isn’t saying something like, “The way she tapped her clipboard made me nervous,” actually telling? If so, is it acceptable to do that in YA as long as you don’t go overboard, making sure you’re using a variety of techniques to get the character’s reaction across throughout a story, rather than always stating the emotion?

My critique partners (whom I love and trust) are telling me at certain points in my novel that they need to know more about what my MC is feeling. I thought I was showing it already with action & dialogue responses, but it doesn’t seem to be enough; however, I’m terrified to make the dreaded mistake of telling when I should be showing. I’m hoping you can help solidify this very blurry line for me.

This is a really tough line to draw and, honestly, I can’t exactly define the difference between good and bad telling (an earlier attempt, by one of my readers, and a good one, is here and was linked in Monday’s post, too).

Interiority is defined as a character’s thoughts, feelings, and reactions to the situation. It is accomplished in either first or close third person by letting us into the character’s head (it can also be accomplished in omniscient third, where we have access to the heads of many characters, but omniscient third is really hard to pull off well).

The more I think about Good Telling vs. Bad Telling and how it plays in concert with Showing, the more I think that it’s a matter of context. Like, if you’ve done your job well, you’ll know exactly when to use Good Telling to good effect. If we know what is going on in a scene and what the characters want in relationship to one another, the subtext of each scene will be easy to understand and you free yourself up to play a lot with your character’s interiority.

In terms of interiority, I am always begging writers for more interiority, and less Bad Telling, and less Physical Telling (which we will get into next week and which I do admit to using once in my rewritten examples below). But I think for writers unused to writing good interiority, you can cross the line over to telling every once in a while and we won’t really notice it that much or fault you. It’s when interiority is missing that telling becomes a problem. One of my most frequent comments on manuscripts is highlighting a piece of telling and writing “Interiority instead.” I harp mercilessly on all of my clients to include more interiority (clients who read the blog: feel free to chime in and confirm, hehe). What does that look like?

Someone in the comments asked me to rewrite Monday’s examples with Good Telling and Showing. It would depend a lot on context. And what we’ve already established about the characters. Ideally, when you come to each of those lines, you already know what the situation is and who the characters are, so you’d know more or less how they’re reacting to something or what kind of scene they’re in.

With the king example (I never defined him as a king when originally writing, he became one in my head and in the second half of the post), you could do something like the following. Keep in mind that I can’t indent on the blog, so there are no tabs to delineate dialogue or new paragraphs.

The new jester took a spin around the royal feast table on his unicycle. New jester, yeah, but same old tricks, thought the king. This was a disappointing opening night for the newly appointed clown, and on the king’s birthday, no less. The jester careened around a corner and aimed himself for the throne, a deranged smile on his face. Only then did the king see the banana creme pie in the Jester’s hand, and how it seemed pointed right for him.
“Happy Birthday, Your Highness!” the jester cried, and let the pie fly.
The king opened his jaw in horror at the realization of what was happening, but, alas, too late. He gasped and sputtered on a mouthful of whipped cream. A squishy explosion, then…silence.
The queen fainted from her chair with a thud. From what the king could see through the mask of oozing custard on his face, the courtiers were frozen, some mid-bite, gaping at him.
A dollop of pie fell onto the king’s brand new birthday jacket. His hands shook with rage. The Jester must’ve realized he’d gone too far, because he hopped off his unicycle immediately dove under the brocade table cloth.
“Well, I never!” the monarch shouted. “You have gone too far!”

I’m trying to give us some context for the situation. And there are some telling moments, like the shaking hands, the jaw dropping, the boredom with the new jester, that it’s the king’s birthday (which we would already know if we were reading this as a scene in a chapter), etc. But I’ve also added some interiority: his thoughts, the realization of his “birthday surprise,” his interpretation of why the jester hides, etc. I think this is a more fleshed out version of the scene with much more showing and interiority than blatant telling.

With the second example, where I’m trying to convey awkwardness and tension, you could do this:

I haven’t seen Sam since last summer. Since the accident. Since I begged Mom and Dad to move us away but could never bring myself to say exactly why. There’s nothing worse than this. He knows I ran away that June, that I begged to switch schools, that I did everything to get away from him. Now he’ll know something else: the money and my parents’ patience ran out and I’m back.
If all goes according to plan, he won’t recognize me. If all goes according to plan
The bell rings and I’m still not to homeroom. What a great way to start my first day back in this hellhole. The classroom’s up ahead. My steps are too loud in the hall, my hand too sweaty on the doorknob, the hinges too loud as I push the door open.
Thirty pairs of eyeballs swivel lazily toward me. The teacher frowns and glances at his clipboard. I want to slip into a seat, any seat, and disappear, except…
Oh god. There’s only one left.
It’s next to Sam.
He looks at me for only a split second; it’s a hazy half-look that gives me a pang of hope. Maybe all the weight I lost will camouflage me. Maybe, to him, I’m just another beanpole kid pushing into homeroom. Then he looks back at me, his eyes narrow.
I’m finished. Just like that.
He knows exactly who I am.

Now, you’ll notice that my examples of Good Telling and Interiority are muuuuch loooonger than my examples of Bad Telling from Monday. This is on purpose. I am trying to flesh out the situation and the characters involved. Once we know those, we are much more likely to be able to plug into moments of good, constructive telling. Interiority also adds bulk, but I hope you can tell here that this kind of padding isn’t bad. It conveys tension, it reveals character, it defines relationships, and it helps the reader stay grounded in the character as we move forward with plot.

Telling and interiority are probably some of the hardest higher-order writing things to nail (along with character and voice), so these posts are never going to be definitive. They will, however, try and introduce these concepts and get you thinking about them.

The above are probably not the most well-written examples, but I am doing cooking school at the Culinary Institute of America (I’m an agent at the CIA…get it?!?!?!?!) this week, and I have about half an hour after class (Italian cheese tasting…oh, woe is me!) and dinner as I write this to really get my thoughts down. I will keep thinking in this vein and hope to have more on telling and showing for you next week, including a post on Physical Telling.

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This is a small bit of punctuation nerdery. Have you heard of the Oxford comma? No? It’s this (bolded and italicized):

I like my scrambled eggs with lox, cheese, and chives.

It’s that last comma before the last “and” (or sometimes “or” or “nor”) in a sentence with a list of three or more items. This is a smartypants comma, as it’s also sometimes called the Harvard comma (or the serial comma). And, of course, it has a Wikipedia entry. The big controversy is: Should we use it or shouldn’t we?

Do you use the Oxford comma? I didn’t used to, but now that I have a Master’s degree and am pretty much a huge smartypants, I’ve started using it. (That’s just my theory for why I’ve added it to my writing…I think I started using it consistently about two years ago after seeing it somewhere and wondering, in my paranoid way, whether I’d actually been doing it wrong all these years. Just like I consciously changed the “a” character of my handwriting in middle school after seeing someone doing it differently because I thought I’d been in the wrong for years. Call it a grammar version of “keeping up with the Joneses.”)

There’s no consensus for whether or not you should or shouldn’t use it in your manuscript, but isn’t it wonderful to be aware of such civilized things and to make such überimportant decisions? Without thinking about commas, we turn into animals. Or cannibals, even! (I’m referring here to a funny comma omission that implicates Rachael Ray on a magazine cover…even though this isn’t an Oxford comma issue.)

Also, Monday was my mom’s birthday. You don’t know the woman (she’s wonderful, trust me), but without her and her art (no, I’m not being big-headed and just talking about me…she’s actually also an artist), your life would be about 75% less awesome and you likely wouldn’t have awoken this fine Wednesday to read about the Oxford/Harvard/smartypants comma. I think a hearty round of applause is in order.

Hmm. It seems I’ve adopted a rather faux-pompous blog personality as of late. Maybe I’m en route to becoming the Stephen Colbert of children’s books. Not bad. Not bad…

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