Wrestling with Show v. Tell

We love stories. Sit in any critique group for longer than 10 minutes and you’ll hear the phrase “Show, Don’t Tell.”  While it is true that all stories mix and balance showing and telling, the best yarns that keep us turning the page show characters acting, feeling, and responding. It’s not that you never tell. Sometimes, writers have to tell us that Jack climbed up the hill.

Telling has a place in storytelling. As readers, we don’t need to be told every tiny detail, particularly when it involves a mundane activity that doesn’t move the story forward, build tension, or impact the outcome of the story. Good writers use telling to share secondary information. For example, you can write “Jill drove to work.” You don’t want to spend sentences, let alone paragraphs, sharing every detail of Jill’s drive to work. That would be less gripping than watching outdoor paint dry on a rainy day. Save your details for revealing significant plot twists or scene descriptions. When you need to be clear and precise, tell.

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Showing builds intimacy between the reader and your characters. It helps us get in their head and peak inside their soul. Showing reveals a piece of your character’s heart. Showing builds tension and makes your reader curious to find out more. Done right, you’ll have your reader salivating like Pavlov’s dog.

A brief example of showing:

Mom sobbed as I stood at the edge of my father’s hospital bed. “Dad, do you know who I am?”

The man who I’d once considered invincible shot me a blank stare. “No. Who are you?” He glanced over at my mom, kneeling at his bedside. “Who is he?”

Deafening silence filled the room. I could hear my heart thump. In that moment, I realized that the anger I thought I’d let go still raged deep inside me. We had our share of disagreements, the old man and me. Now, I was the only one able to keep score.

“Dad, it’s me. Your son.”

Nothing but a glazed stare returned my plea.

Mom rose from the floor, pressed her hand on my shoulder, “He’ll remember you. You’ll see. He’ll get better. You can’t keep a good man down.”

My eyes welled up, my hands balled up in fists. Good man?  The man who’d once been my hero quit being a good man years ago.

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Good writing leans in favor of showing, sparing the telling for those things that can only be told. A great sentence doesn’t come easy. Writing riveting paragraphs demands effort. We only get better at writing by sitting down and hammering out words on our laptop’s keyboard. There are no shortcuts to becoming a good writer. What are you waiting for?

Get writing!

 

Wednesday Writers Pad: Are You a Competent Writer?

So, you’re a committed writer. But you’re struggling with your confidence and competence. Writing everyday will certainly help boost your confidence (some days) and build your competence (most days). I talk with aspiring writers all the time who lack confidence in their competence. They have a story to tell, but do not fill equipped to tell it. If you’ve ever tried your hand at writing, then you can relate. As I’ve said before, writing is hard work. Virtually everyone I meet has a book idea that they would like to get on paper. However, most of them never succeed in doing it.

First things first. You can’t get better at writing without sitting down and actually writing. You must put words on paper or else you won’t be able to sharpen your writing skills. It doesn’t matter if you scribble words on a paper pad, hammer sentences out on a typewriter, or key in paragraphs on a laptop.  You can compose stories in the morning, scrawl notes at lunch, and weave tales after dinner. Just sit down and write.

Maybe English wasn’t your strongest subject in high school. Read other writers to improve your writing. Take classes at the local community college to learn more about writing well. Join a writers group to gain insights into how to write more better stories. But write.

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Once you get a few chapters under your belt, find someone to read and critique your work. You can start with your Mom if you want but know she will either over-love it or strongly hate it. And you will either think your writing is better than it is or be a train wreck left with your confidence lagging in the caboose. You could have your spouse read it and tell you what they think. Just remember, you both must go to sleep sometime. And if things get to far out of hand, there might be police involved. I suggest finding someone more neutral, less invested in every outcome of your life but willing to hold you accountable when it comes to your writing. And…willing to take time to help you become a better writer. They do not need to know everything about writing. Just more than you do. You won’t have to take everything they say to heart, but you will have to be willing to listen and open to suggestions. Yes, it’s your baby. No, somebody telling you that your baby is ugly or smells bad ain’t pretty. But truthfulness and honesty are what you need to get better. Anybody can read your stuff and sugarcoat their impression of what you wrote. Nobody wants to hurt your feelings. In addition to being arduous work, writing can be excruciatingly painful while being inexplicably wonderful. If we’re going to become better writers, we need honest feedback from fellow writers.

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Another step I recommend taking to become a more competent writer is joining a local writers group. Local writers groups will offer informational and educational meetings featuring speakers who are experts in the field of writing. Writers groups will also host workshops and connect you with other writers. Like most anything in life, having a network of like-minded friends will help boost your writing career. Writers groups will often host a critique group in addition to their monthly writers meetings. Personally, I know that joining our local Writers Guild of Texas (of which I’m a current Board member) has been instrumental in helping me get back into writing and creating content. In the last 3+ years I have learned a ton that has proved invaluable to me as a writer. And best of all—I’ve met a slew of great people who share my passion for writing.

To become more competent and grow confidence in your writing enroll in a writing class. Many community colleges offer writing course through their Continuing Ed programs. The classes are usually affordable and vary in length from a couple of hours on Saturday morning to a few days spread over 4-6 weeks. Classes, like the ones offered by Writing Workshops Dallas, focus on specific things like starting your novel, character or plot development, and marketing you finished book, along with a slew of other courses designed to make you a more competent and more confident writer.

In addition to enrolling in a few classes, look for writing contests that you can enter. Contests will help you focus on a central idea and teach you how to meet a deadline. Both are very crucial elements of getting serious about your writing.

Last but not least, I’d recommend attending a writer’s conference. Back when it was still active, I had the opportunity to attend the East Texas Christian Writers Conference in Marshall, Texas. I met a lot of good people and grew my network of writers, agents, and editors. The same is true of the Mayborn, a nonfiction writers conference that features along with a contest.  Writers conferences, like the annual WORDfest, allow you to immerse yourself in your craft for a day or even a few consecutive days. You’ll grow your network—you might even land an agent. No doubt, you’ll get better at writing.

These are just a few ideas that will help you become a more competent writer. Hopefully, they will prove useful to you. In the meantime…

Keep writing!

Are You Committed to Writing Everyday?

Our guest speaker at the monthly gathering of writers hosted by the Writers Guild of Texas (of which I’m a Board Member),  gave the crowd a number of fabulous ideas geared to helping individuals write every day. Nathan Brown, former writing instructor at the University of Oklahoma and Poet Laureate of Oklahoma, shared a number of insights and helpful tips to help writers write every day.

Writing everyday may seem like an ominous task. In several one-on-one conversations I had before the Monday night’s meeting, a number of people in attendance expressed their daunting sentiments concerning sitting down and putting words on paper daily. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that they don’t want to write. To the contrary, they claim to have the desire, but lack two things 1) time and 2) ideas.

Nathan Brown definitely helped give each of us a means to write when inspiration seems to be avoiding us. He suggested making lists, exploring our memories, and recalling our senses. Through listing, you’ll always have something to write about. Think about those great family stories that get told at every gathering or better yet–what about those stories that nobody talks about but everyone knows. For inspiration, try recalling memories of your annual vacation spots, where you spent your summers, or where you grew up and writing them down. What are some of your strongest sensory memories? Maybe for you, it’s the smell of the apple pie that Granny baked or the taste of that first kiss. Mr. Brown’s pointers certainly were solid and offer opportunities for each of us to put pen to paper–or in our modern 21st-century–fingers to the keypad on our laptop. His insights prove useful if you’re a fiction or non-fiction writer.

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Carving out time, I think, is a bigger challenge for many of us, myself included. I find if I don’t set aside time to write, then it won’t happen. I’ve also had to schedule out blog posts an editorial calendar as a way of keeping me on schedule and posting regularly. I have to set daily word goals and make a point of finding time to write consistently. For me, that’s usually before I head out the door. But, I find myself writing at different times throughout the day, not just first thing in the morning. There are numerous nights that you’ll find me burning the midnight oil, sitting in the glow of my laptop screen, punching out words. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts—a lot of my writing the past several months has been academic in nature as I finish up my graduate degree.

I’ve found, the more I write and the more I focus on actually sitting down and producing material, the more opportunities to write present themselves. Writing is not for the faint of heart. There are days–even weeks–where it can be a very discouraging pursuit. Perhaps that’s why so many great writers simply write for themselves first, rather than an audience. Writing is something you have to do because you love it–and dare I say it—enjoy. This may seem like a rather sadistic endeavor–because in many ways it is. But there’s really nothing much better than someone being encouraged or entertained by the words you’ve written or by the story you’ve told.

Keep writing. Lord knows the story won’t write itself.

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