S.C. Jensen is a writer and artist living in Middle-of-Nowhere, Saskatchewan, Canada. Please don't hold it against her.
She is currently writing a quarterly magazine for Northern Saskatchewan, called The Trailblazer. She also writes some short fiction in the speculative fiction and folk genres, and is working on her second sci-fi novel, Ghostlights.
Her short story "The Spirit of Settee Lake" was featured in the online publication, "Good Medicine Stories with Lee Maracle and Richard Van Camp".
Her first novel, "The Timekeepers' War," published by Bedlam Press, was released in 2014 and can be purchased at most online book retailers.
May is more than halfways gone and I haven’t done a single post! Sorry about that. I’ve started coaching soccer and t-ball, and I was away up north for an education outreach thing and somehow the month has slipped away from me.
I just wanted to give you a quick update on what’s going on here. I found out last week that I placed 2nd in my heat for the NYC Midnight Short Story competition with the dreaded “Romantic Comedy” genre. I complained about it HERE.
I’m incredibly excited to even be in the third and final round. The first round had over 4500 competitors, round two we were narrowed down to about 750, and now we’re down to only 90 people in round three. Before this year I hadn’t even made it to round two in the short story competition.
So I have 24 hours to complete a 1500 word story. The genre is open, the subject is “a side-effect”, and the character is “a grave digger.”
I decided to go with a ghost story. I’m done the first draft and am awaiting feedback from my faithful readers, those who are available at the very last minute, haha. There are just under 8 hours left now. So I hope I don’t have to make any major changes.
I will keep you update, and hopefully will be a little less busy after this and be able to post more frequently. Thanks for reading!
Well, this has been a great week for me in writing news! I just found out that my story “Cheese-Head” (Genre: Fairy Tale, Theme: Superhuman, Character: A Cheese Maker) placed second over all in the first heat for NYC Midnight’s Short Story Challenge, and I’m moving on to round two! Which means I’ll be glued to my computer for the better part of this weekend.
I have three days to complete my next challenge. The prompt is Genre: Romantic Comedy, Theme: Anxiety, Charcter: A Brewer.
Now, Rom-Com is pretty close to as far from my comfort zone as I can get aside from full on Romance. I’m not super comfortable with Comedy, either, but my comedy flash fiction piece “Pi in the Sky” placed third in its heat last year, and “Cheese-Head” is as much comedy as a fairy tale, so I think that part might go okay. Romance though… ugh.
Wish me luck!
I have to submit this piece by midnight on Sunday. I’ll let you know how it goes! In the mean time, if you head over to the Story Laboratory and read the above-linked comedy piece, you can let me know what works and doesn’t work with my previous attempts at humour. I need all the help I can get!
Writers love rules. Or love to hate them. If you spend any time in writers groups, or read a lot of craft articles, one of the rules that get tossed around a lot is “Show DON’T Tell.”
The reason this rule emphasizes showing over telling is not because one is better than the other. It’s that beginner writers tend to “tell” their stories exclusively. Other, equally new writers like to point out at every opportunity when others are “telling” and offer up terrible examples of how to show instead. Usually the result is an overuse of flowery adjectives (which are actually just fancy “telling”) or the purplest of purple prose.
In this post, I’m going to try to clear up what showing and telling are, and when to use them. Yes, both of them. Because showing and telling each have a place, and finding the right balance will vary depending on the type of story you are trying to write. As with everything, there are good and bad examples of both, and we’ll look at those, too.
What is Telling?
“Telling” in fiction writing refers to any time the writer makes a statement without providing any evidence. They are asking the reader to just take their word for something, that Jake was tall, that the sun was setting, that the wind was cold. Any time a writer “tells” the reader something, they are removing the reader from the sensory experiences of the POV character. Telling allows the reader to see something happening without feeling it.
Telling is usually the fastest, most efficient way of conveying information to your reader. It is most effective in action sequences, and to cover the more clinical aspects of your story: things you want your reader to know, but not necessarily to dwell on.
When a story is “told” exclusively, though, it comes across as emotionally distant. Your reader will know what happens, but won’t necessarily care. This is because most readers require a certain amount of sensory input in order to empathize with a character.
Exceptions to this occur when the writer has a particularly strong narrative voice, in which case the telling itself shows the characters’ personality well enough that the reader can identify with them this way.
The balance of show vs. tell in action and humour writing leans more toward telling.
Good Telling vs Bad Telling
Let’s look at a few of examples that show the difference between good telling and bad telling.
a) Billy punched Jim and knocked him to the floor. Jim shook his head to clear his vision. When he tried to stand, Billy kicked him in the stomach. Jim pushed himself up onto his knees, swaying with the spinning in his brain. He wondered how he was going to get out of this one. Then Billy delivered the knockout blow and Jim knew nothing but blackness.
b) Billy slammed his fist into Jim’s jaw, knocking him on his ass. Jim shook his head. He rolled onto his side and tried to push himself up. But Billy wasn’t against kicking a man when he was down. Air shot out of Jim’s lungs when Billy’s foot connected. He swayed on his hands and knees. How was he going to get out of this one? Jim didn’t even see the knockout blow. Billy smashed a boot into his temple and Jim was out cold.
In this scene, both examples are “told.” The difference between the bad telling in a) and the better telling in b) is in the strength of the word choices, and the elimination of some of those pesky filter words we discussed HERE. There is also a hint more narrative voice in the second example, which allows you to tell “with style.”
Some people will argue that “Billy slammed his fist into Jim’s jaw” is showing “Billy punched Jim.” Technically this is showing, but it doesn’t call up any extra sensory details (beyond visual) so I’m going to call this a grey area. Feel free to debate in the comments!
Let’s look at another example of telling with style.
a) It was morning. The sun came up. Melissa was filled with a feeling of vague disappointment. She didn’t want to face Jordan again today. He was always so happy all the time and it made her feel even worse about herself. She wished she could disappear. Or, if nothing else, that he would.
b) Morning, again. The sun comes up, again. Of course it does. No matter how hard she wished otherwise, the days kept turning over and Melissa was still here. Alive. The last thing she wanted was to see Jordan’s smiling face knocking at her door. It was like he was being happy at her, to spite her for her own misery. His cheerful “Hello” made her want to die. Or made her wish he would.
Again, both of these examples are telling. Yet we have a much clearer idea of who Melissa is in example b) and we are able to empathize with her thoughts and emotional state even though we have very little sensory details to immerse ourselves into. This is the power of a strong narrative voice.
Adverbs: Telling in Disguise
Adverbs often show up in over-written purple prose, but contrary to many people’s understanding of show vs. tell, adverb abuse is a telling problem. Why? Because adverbs are shortcuts around showing. Writers often think they’ve shown a bunch of extra detail by tacking on some exotic adverbs, but really they’re just writing lazy, fancily.
a) Cautiously, Mary stepped precariously toward the edge, feeling her heart beat fearfully.
b) The tree was enormously tall, and John wrapped his arms around the magnificently thick bark and stared wonderingly into its trembling branches.
Arguably, these sentences are “shown” more than if I had simply said:
a) Mary stepped toward the ledge, her heart beating fast.
b) John wrapped his arms around the enormous tree and stared into its branches with wonder.
But all the extra adverbs don’t really tell us anything about HOW the character experiences these things. Really, the second version is better. It doesn’t tell us anything more, but it doesn’t clutter up the narrative with a bunch of extra words, either. “Her heart beat fearfully” is just a fancy way of saying “She was scared.”
Here’s how those sentences look with a bit more showing:
a) Mary stepped precariously toward the edge with her heart lodged in her throat.
b) John wrapped his arms around the enormous tree. Above him, branches whispered secrets to each other. He stared into their dancing leaves, his eyes stinging with tears.
Better? Worse? It depends on the effect your going for, of course. But I don’t think anyone will argue that the third set of examples is the easiest to imagine.
What is Showing?
If telling is a statement without evidence, then showing is evidence without a statement. Showing allows the reader to delve into the sensory world of the POV character, it gives the reader something to experience rather than simply observe. And contrary to what a lot of writers seem to think, it does not have to be done in a flowery, poetic way.
There are degrees of “showing” as there are degrees of most literary devices. The above quote from Chekhov is simultaneously loved and hated by writers, and it has probably led more than one beginner down the garden path to Purple Prose Land.
Showing slows the reader down, gives them something to imagine in a way that they can relate to, and is an important tool for highlighting important moments in your story. If your story has too much showing, it will be slow and meandering, and probably horribly over-written. Your reader isn’t suffering from the emotional distance of an over-told story, rather they are drowning in it.
The balance of show vs. tell will lean more heavily toward showing in romance, fantasy, and literary fiction.
Good Showing vs Bad Showing
Bad showing is as much about what you are choosing to show as it is about how you show it. Showing calls the readers attention to whatever it is that you are describing, so a well-described image could be bad if it’s not being described for a purpose. Imagery is all well and good, but nobody cares what colour the curtains are unless the colour matters in some way. Deciding which details are important is another article for another time, though. So let’s just look at some other kinds of bad showing. That is, purple prose…
a) Stan strolled through the garden, gazing delightedly at daffodils as yellow as morning sunlight, blades of grass like tiny green soldiers, and droplets of dew glittering like the tears of angels from heaven. A delicate bouquet of floral tones cascaded through his olfactory passages like a rainbow bursting out of a rose-shaped prism. His tremoulous sigh shuddered, as if from the very soul of his being, across the blossoming field.
b) Stan strolled through the garden. Daffodils bobbed their heads gaily in the breeze, bright spears of grass shot through the footpath, and dew glittered across everything. A delicate bouquet of air washed over him and he smiled with every inch of his body.
c) Stan walked through the garden. Everywhere he looked, there were yellow daffodils, green grass, and droplets of dew. A floral scent filled the air. He smiled and sighed.
Here we have a) over-written showing, b) showing, with a purpose, and c) telling. What do I mean by showing, with a purpose? Well, let’s have a look at another way we could have shown this scene.
d) Stan strolled through the garden. Daffodils drooped their heads against the wind, sharp brown grass speared the footpath, and a drizzle of dew drenched everything. The sodden scent of rotting foliage oozed over him and his lip curled into a vindictive smile.
Example d) hits all of the same points as b) but with very different results. Showing is a very powerful tool in your arsenal. We see, not just the scene, but how your character feels about the scene when you show it to us through his senses.
When you tell too much and too often, you are missing a valuable opportunity to shape the world and the characters for your reader. When you are missing sensory details, the reader is free to fill in that information any way they like. This freedom can be disastrous to your intentions, if they fill in the blanks with the wrong information.
Now, that was an admittedly “flowery” example of showing. But not all showing has to be pretty or poetic. The way you show is as much a part of your voice as what you show.
Kendra twisted the knife into Billy’s chest. With a satisfying pop some internal mechanism gave way and his blood sluiced over her hands in a wave of regret as thick and black as motor oil.
Dave peeled his eyes open like he was trying to get into a squashed bag of chips. Crusty bits clung to his eyelashes. When he rubbed them, his fingers came away feeling slightly greasy.
Weak sunlight oozed out from between the trees. It pooled in the divots left by Graham’s feet in the gravel but never made it ahead of his shadow. He walked, perpetually, into darkness.
In order to show effectively, you first have to decide WHAT to show. WHY is it important? HOW are you going to show that? It’s not as simple as finding fancy ways to say things; your imagery should always serve a dual purpose. Imagery should evoke a feeling in your reader, usually the same feeling that your POV character is experiencing. And for the sake of your reader, you only want your POV characters to notice and experience things that are important to the development of your story.
Choose wisely, and show with caution.
Finding Your Balance
How do you know if you are showing and telling the right way, and in the right places? Know your readers, and then ASK them. If you are getting feedback that your story is dragging, disjointed, or wordy, you may be showing too much and at the wrong times. If you are getting feedback that your writing feels superficial, or that it isn’t ringing true emotionally, you may be telling too much and at the wrong times. This can be really useful feedback.
But knowing your readers is very important here. You don’t want to give your experimental literary masterpiece to someone who solely reads military sci-fi. I hear that my own writing is too imagery heavy ALL THE TIME. I only sometimes listen to those people. I personally love imagery, and to an extend “showing” is a key part of my authorial voice. On the other hand, you don’t want to give a fast paced spy thriller to someone like me, because I’m going to want to slow down and smell the gunpowder.
Just kidding, I’m pretty good at separating my personal preferences from my critiques on other people’s writing. But I will point out opportunities to dig into really great sensory details to get more out of your fast-paced action stories.
What do you think? Are you a shower or a teller? Do you have a strong preference one way or another? What other writing rules do you love or love to hate? Show or tell me all about it in the comments.
So I’m a little embarrassed to share this next piece of news with you.
That horrible, no good, very bad story I was writing? Well, all of the figurative blood, sweat, and literal tears paid off. I won second place in The Arcanist’sMagical Short Story Contest! You can see the announcement HERE.
This is all extremely exciting to me. I’ve never won a real writing contest before. I have yet to sell one of my short stories in a semi-pro or pro market (but I’m working on that!).
And second place came with a $250 USD cash prize which, I’m pretty sure, is more than my book made in the first year. This is officially my most successful piece of fiction writing!
Better yet, the winning stories and the runners up, will be published in a collection called Magic, Mayhem & Monsters coming out later this week!
I’ll post a link as soon as I have one.
The absolute best thing about this whole experience, though, is how validating it is to be recognized after I worked so hard on this story. I say it all the time: if you keep working, keep failing, and keep trying again, eventually you will succeed. That is all you have to do. And sometimes it sucks (just see my rant). Sometimes I feel like I’m just telling myself this fairy tale to drive off the swirling void of depression. But it’s proven true once again.
Fail. Learn from it. Fail again. Keep trying. Your next attempt will be a little bit better. Eventually you’ll get it right!
I’m newly motivated to keep working on my short story submissions this year. And as my editor friend has assured me, it won’t always be this hard. The more you fall down, the easier it gets to pick yourself up again. You start to notice those cracks in the sidewalk before you catch your toe. Practice makes progress.
Now I need to send a huge shout out to my readers during this whole process. Some of these benevolent spirits read every single draft! That’s a lot of work in a very short time. And even those who were only able to read one version all gave me valuable insight into what was working and what wasn’t. I couldn’t have done it without you guys! I should get them to write the next installment of Critique Mystique.
Thank you to everyone who reads this, and comments, and offers support on my bad days. I’m so glad you’re here to celebrate my successes with, too!
If you have ever received a story critique from me (you lucky dog, you) I’ve probably harped on and on about filler and filter words. It comes up in 90% of the stories I read.
I just made that statistic up out of thin air, but it’s how I feel, and that’s what’s really important, isn’t it?
Filler words get talked about on a lot of writing blogs. We’ve all read, and probably ignored, countless articles about how they weaken our writing and felt that it doesn’t really apply to us. (Really. See what I did there? My own blog pieces are full of the bastards.) Filter words are trickier, and they aren’t discussed as often, but I’m going to shine a light on the ugly blighters today and hopefully scare them out of your writing.
If simultaneity is the death by a thousand cuts, slowly draining your story’s momentum, then fillers and filters are equally dangerous. If I had to stretch this metaphor–and of course I have to–filler words are death by suffocation on Peeps marshmallow chicks and filters are death by toe-suspension. Or something.
Okay, let me explain what I mean by Filler and Filter words before you decide if those ridiculously nefarious images make any sense.
Filler Words: Put your story on a diet
Cut the fluff. Trim the fat. Tighten your prose. It’s time to put your writing on a word diet.
One of the most important things I’ve learned from studying short story crafting over the past couple of years is the power of brevity. If you are writing a 1000 word flash fiction piece, you must make every word count. You cannot afford to waste precious words on fluff.
I’m looking at you, filler words.
You know what I’m talking about, right? Filler words like: just, that, very, really, literally, totally, quite, perhaps, actually, almost, slightly, simply, absolutely; Filler phrases like: in order to, due to the fact that, etc.
Seeing these filler words in a list, they seem totally innocuous. These are common, every day words that slip naturally into our writing because we use them in our speech. First person narratives tend to be the worst offenders for this reason, but fillers can slip into any POV. The trouble is, in written language, these words do nothing but drag us down.
I get a lot of push back when I point out filler words, for some reason. A lot of writers seem to think that they create a conversational voice and add authenticity to their stories. And in some, exceedingly rare cases, this can be argued if one is writing in a particularly deep POV for a particular kind of character.
For the moment, though, please humour me and lets assume that you are not that special case and your filler words are unnecessary dead weights dragging your story into the depths of the oceans of despair.
Examples: How to cut Filler Words
Ex. 1. a) Breanne really wished that she could just disappear. (8 words) b) Breanne wished she could disappear. (5 words)
Ex. 2. a) The wind was quite cold and the trees almost bent double. (11 words) b) The trees bent double in the cold wind. (8 words)
Ex. 3. a) Josie popped into the shop in order to grab a coffee before work. (13 words) b) Josie popped into the shop to grab a coffee before work. (11 words)
Yes. I know. You’re already rolling your eyes at me. Surely saving two or three words here and there isn’t going to make or break your story? Spoken like someone who has never tried to write flash fiction!
But do you see how much cleaner the above sentences sound, simply by removing the filler words? It’s a subtle different that adds up if you apply it throughout your story.
Now, I dare you to search your latest manuscript for the words: very, really, that, and just.
It’s not just a few words here and there is it?
Depending on the length of your story or novel, I’m betting you have hundreds if not thousands of filler words waiting to be culled. I know I do. I’m getting better at not writing them in the first place, but my drafts are still full of them.
I actually love going through my first draft, cutting the fluff, and then deciding where to spend my newly freed-up words. Particularly when I’m confined to a tight word count.
The fact is, filler words give your writing a diluted, wishy-washy feel. Write with conviction, commit to your images, tell the reader exactly what is going on and don’t be afraid to be specific. Cutting the fluff will give an automatic boost to the pace of your story and make your meaning clearer to the reader. It’s probably the only foolproof diet plan in existence.
Filter words, on the other hand, are trickier.
Filter Words: Strip down and get intimate
Now that your story is sporting a trim new silhouette, it’s time to show off. Filter words are all about how close you allow your POV to get to the characters thoughts, emotions, and sensory experiences. You want to eliminate words that filter your characters experience unnecessarily.
I like to think of POV as a movie camera. How your reader experiences your story has a lot to do with where you place this imaginary camera. Panning across a scene from far above shows a breadth of detail with little depth. The closer you bring the camera in, the less the reader will know about the big picture, but the more they will get to see of your character’s actual experience in the world.
I, personally, like an intimate POV. It allows for greater emotional investment and deeper immersion in the story. Of course there are times when a narrative requires a little distance, and I’m not going to argue about that. But for the sake of this post, I’m going to assume you want your readers to BE your characters while they are reading. Culling filter words is how you will do this.
Filter words can be broken into two main categories. Sensing and Thinking. Sensing filters are verbs like: to see, to watch, to smell, to feel, to hear, to taste, etc. Thinking filters are verbs like: to know, to wonder, to realize, to think, to seem, etc.
And the worst offender of all, which probably deserves its own post, is the verb “to be”
Again, these words are ubiquitous. They seem harmless. But they are not. They hold your reader at an emotional distance from your POV character, effectively preventing them from fully immersing themselves in your story. That’s bad.
Filter words unnecessarily filter your story through the characters perceptions when, in a tight first or third person POV, the reader should actually be the character. Filter words are a constant reminder that the reader is reading and not experiencing your story first hand. That’s very bad.
Examples: How to cut Filter Words
Ex. 1. a) Sarah felt a stab of panic in her heart. She heard a scratching sound on the other side of the door. She wondered if maybe she’d forgotten to let the cat back in. But then she noticed something she couldn’t ignore. She smelled damp earth and rotting meat. Sarah knew that Rob was back from the grave. (57 words) b) Panic stabbed Sarah’s heart. Something scratched outside the door. Had she forgotten to let Mittens back in? No. It couldn’t be the cat. The smell of damp earth and rotting meat oozed in through an open window. Sarah backed away slowly. Rob, fresh from the grave, called out softly, “I know you’re in there, Sarah.” (55 words)
Ex. 2. a) I was walking down the garden path when I smelled the sweetest scent. I looked down and saw bright purple flowers at my feet. It seemed like they were growing out of the cobblestones themselves. I wondered who had planted them there? I heard birds chirping in the trees and felt the warmth of the sun upon my face, and I realized that I hadn’t been this happy in weeks. (70 words) b) I meandered down the garden path when the sweetest scent tickled my nose. Bright purple flowers waved at me from the cobblestones at my feet. Who could have planted them? Birds chirped gaily in the trees and warm sun kissed my cheeks. I hadn’t been this happy in weeks. (49 words)
I hope I’ve illustrated how much more you can show a reader, in equal or fewer words, when you eliminate filters. Again, as with any of the examples I come up with off the top of my head, these are not brilliantly shining beacons of literary genius. But, in the first example I was able to add detail to the scene without adding extra words. In the second example, I conveyed the exact same information, using stronger language, in far fewer words. All I had to do is get rid of the filters.
The thing is, if you tell a reader that “joy bubbled in Ali’s heart, like fizzy cream soda” we know that Ali is the one feeling this. To say “Ali felt joy bubbling in his heart like fizzy cream soda” is redundant, and it only serves as a reminder to the reader than he is not there with Ali, experiencing this joy with him, but a mere observer.
To Be or Not To Be…
Definitely not. “To be” verbs, like was, is, am, were, and all of their various tenses can almost always be eliminated to create a stronger image or sentence.
Bob was looking around the corner. –> Bob looked around the corner.
Sheila was wearing a bright green hat that was drooping on one side. –> Sheila wore a bright green hat that drooped on one side.
I was sad. –> Grief crushed me.
Eliminating “to be” verbs simplifies your sentences and, in some cases, forces you to show an image or emotion rather than telling the reader about it.
Now Forget Everything I Just Told You
At least for the first draft, try not to worry about any of this too much. It’s the kind of fussing that really slows down the writing process. My advice is to save fillers and filters for later on in the editing process. You can’t edit what you haven’t written yet, and all of these rules can bog even the most experience writers down.
But I would like you to try applying this to one of your own stories and see what you think! Let me know how it goes.
What do you think about fillers and filters? Were you aware of these terms before? Have you read about them and ignored them repeatedly, like I did for years? Tell me all about it in the comments!
So, I decided to participate in a Fantasy short story competition this month. Fantasy story up to 5000 words, sounds easy enough, right? Well, folks. I think I discovered one of my hard limits. Writing fantasy as short fiction is painfully difficult. Not the good pain.
I love fantasy. It was probably the first genre I really got into as a young reader, and it carried me through into adulthood before I reached my saturation point and gave up on it for a while. At the time, I felt like there was nothing much new happening in the genre and I wanted to branch into different things. Like James Joyce.
I may never recover.
Anyway, I still like fantasy. I have never been a fantasy writer, though. I use a lot of fantastical elements. I almost never write general fiction. Bizarro details sneak in when I’m not expecting it. It is a gift and a curse. But full on fantasy in a different world with different rules… Never.
A short fantasy story seemed like a nice easy way to get acquainted with the genre as a writer. Even typing that sentence now has me giggling manically and pulling out my hair.
HOW DO PEOPLE DO THIS THING WHERE THEY CRAM A WHOLE WORLD AND BACK STORY AND CULTURE AND EVERYTHING INTO ANYTHING LESS THAN A NOVELLA????
I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have yelled.
But I need to vent. Let me tell you about my experience.
Draft #1 (secretly hoping “and only”)
My first draft went really well. I was riffing off of a 1200 word flash fiction piece I did for 12 Short Stories last year that was well received. The overwhelming feedback I’d gotten was that readers wished it had been longer. Convenient, right? I’d just flesh out the details to about 4000 words and voila, my competition piece would be born.
Well, luckily I have reader friends who set me straight on that front. It was a fine story. But I was info-dumping like I’d eaten a bad literary burrito. That’s a new thing for me. I do not info dump. I am usually accused of the opposite–withholding all the necessary details and forcing my readers to puzzle out the truth. But apparently, the info-dump is how one deals with all of that back story and world building and other crap that is supposed to appear in a good fantasy story.
Okay, Draft #2 then…
Second round. I cut out a bunch of the extra details, culled the back story to what I thought were the bare essentials, and tried to disperse it a little more evenly throughout the story. The result? Readers thought it was better. There was still a little too much exposition, but that’s to be expected with fantasy. Then one of my readers suggested working all of that backstory into the dialogue with an “As you know, blahblahblah” technique.
I balked at that, naturally. The only thing worse than an infodump, surely, is an infodump pretending to be natural conversation.
But I also wasn’t happy with the lukewarm reception of my second draft. And I’m a writer, dammit. I can figure out how to get my characters talking about their world, can’t I?
Third time’s the charm?
Draft three. Glowing praises from the readers. Yes, the pace was much better now, there’s no more info dumping. I’d killed all of the infodumps, there were none. It was glorious.
So I gave it to my husband to read. He hadn’t read any of the previous drafts. He’s not a writer, so he doesn’t get hung up on all those little writerly things we like to nit-pick about one anothers’ work. I figured it was going to be a slam dunk.
Not so. He had no idea what the hell my story was about. The only reason my other readers loved the new version was that they, unwittingly, were still benefiting from all the exposition I had cut. Just like me, they knew the story that was behind the scenes, and they couldn’t unknow it. I needed new readers.
I’m not going to lie, I cried.
Two more new readers gave me the same feedback. So, back to the drawing board again.
Draft #4. Bring it on home!
Draft Four now. An editor friend of mine suggested that I reverse engineer the story to discover the absolute bare minimum amount of back story necessary in order to make the story work. In order to do that I really had to focus on the little golden kernel at the heart of the story. Everything else was chaff. Cut, cut, cut, cut cut.
Okay. I revealed the key elements of my story. Now I had to drop those elements in earlier, without killing the pacing I’d just amped up. And make them more obvious, despite my overwhelming desire to hide them like easter eggs at random throughout the story (Why do I do that? We may never know.)
Result? Much better, much clearer. But…
But? What do you mean ‘but?’ I solved the problem. I fixed the story. It’s all good now, right?
Well, it’s just a little choppy is all. You did hack the whole thing apart with a meat cleaver. And now that these details aren’t here, these character reactions are completely unmotivated and seem overly dramatic.
Draft “Just-let-me-die” #5
Well. Draft #5 was it. Not because I have a masterpiece of fantasy writing on my hands but because today was the final deadline for the story contest. I managed to smooth out most of the rough edges and I think I’ve got a story that is worth reading, if not a home-run-slam-dunk winner. To be perfectly honest, I can’t tell if it’s garbage or not anymore. I’m just exhausted. I only sent the final copy to a couple of my original readers, and I made them promise not to tell me if they notice anything I need to change. They can sit on it until I get my rejection.
But I’m coming back to it. Because I will make this story work, dammit. I will. I have put too many bloody hours into this thing not to see it published.
The Moral of the Story Is…
First of all, fantasy is an incredibly hard genre to write in short forms. I clearly underestimated the skills required to tackle a project like this. I also need to read more fantasy stories in the 5000 and under range to get a feel for how experienced writers go about crafting micro-fantasy worlds. Because now that I know how hard it is, of course I want to keep doing it. I’m a glutton for punishment.
Second of all, first drafts suck. Usually second and third drafts suck. If you come at writing expecting to do it right the first time around, from inspiration to finished project, you are setting yourself up for disappointment. Or maybe you don’t see it, in which case you’re setting your readers up for disappointment. Either way it’s not good.
Now, I know this about my writing. I have come to terms with the fact that first drafts are beautiful in their potential and ugly in their execution. I also know that it is infinitely easier to work through the drafting process if you give yourself time between each kick at the can. What I didn’t realize was how mentally and emotionally exhausting drafting can be when you don’t give yourself that distance between drafts.
I did not have the luxury of time on my side and getting through these drafts nearly drove me insane. Do yourself a favour and plan to take your time. Your story and your mental health with thank you!
But I don’t regret the experience at all. Even if I don’t place, which I know I likely won’t, what I learned by doing this intense speed-drafting process was invaluable. I pushed through even when I didn’t want to, I tried things I didn’t want to try, I took advice I didn’t want to take, I stuck with it even when I wanted to throw my computer out the window. And the story I have now is so, so, so much better than my first draft.
And in a month or so, I’ll be ready to tackle Draft #6, 7, 8… however many it takes to get it right.
Writers, have you ever tried to cram massive revisions into a short time frame? How did you feel during and after?
Readers, did you have any idea how many different versions your favourite stories go through before they make it into your hot little hands?
Add your questions, comments, and moral support below.
There is a little talked about writing habit that slowly drains the life and excitement out of your story. It slows readers down and confuses them, often without anyone being able to articulate why. It is so common, most people don’t even recognize it as a problem. But if you fall victim to this habit often, it becomes the death of a thousand cuts. You are effectively killing your story, one sentence at a time.
Are you scared yet? Have you been the unwitting victim of this insidious monster?
Yes. Yes you have. And I’m willing to bet my daily caffeine ration that no one has ever pointed it out to you. I’m going to shine a light on this demon now, and together we’ll banish it for good.
Are you ready to face it?
The Devil You Know
I’m talking about SIMULTANEITY. You know, things happening at the same time. In real life, stuff happens simultaneously. The phone is ringing while the kids scream about the toy truck while you wipe up the coffee you spilled trying to reach for the phone, while your husband stumbles, bleary-eyed out of the bedroom and asks “What’s for breakfast?”
No? Just my house?
My point is, life is often chaotic. We are pulled in a hundred different directions at once. Even the more peaceful moments of life are a beautiful blend of simultaneous events. You sink into the cool grass as a warm evening breeze kisses your skin as the birds sing their final songs of the day as the sun disappears behind the trees as shadows lengthen into long purple fingers to envelope your body.
It is natural for writers to want to recreate that feeling of being “in the moment” with life happening all around us. It is “realistic” we say. That may be. But it’s also a huge mistake.
Fiction isn’t Real.
Fiction pretends to be real. Good fiction is so good at pretending to be real that we forget it is not. A gripping yarn takes something real or potentially real, and cuts out the boring bits embellishes the interesting bits. It plays around with the sequence of things in order to achieve the maximum emotional impact.
Fiction manipulates reality.
If you ever find yourself defending a writing choice as “realistic” you must pause. Reflect on what you mean by realistic. It is not always a compliment. Real life is tedious and often confusing. Your writing doesn’t have to be.
In real life, you must cross the room, reach out your right (or left) hand, turn the door handle, and pull (or push), in order to answer the door. Readers know this. If your character hears a knock and goes to see who it is, we do not need to know the precise details of how he gets from point A to point B. This is called stage direction. It is “realistic.” And that’s BAD. Let your reader fill in the blanks.
Simultaneity is also realistic. It is also bad. Not because it is boring, like stage direction, but because it is confusing. Why?
In real life, our brains can process many different things at the same time. You do not have to think about every sensation and thought individually in order to experience them. Do you remember the last time you stepped in dog poop? It is annoying. You do not have to think about it–the smell, the slippery sensation under your brand new shoe, rage at your neighbour’s apparent inability to keep his animal out of your yard–in order to experience annoyance.
The way we process written language is different from the way we experience events in real life. In real life, simultaneity is natural. Fiction isn’t real, and reading is different from first hand experience. No matter how good a writer you are, there is one inescapable fact that makes actual simultaneity impossible.
It’s so obvious that we don’t even think about it.
We Read One Word at a Time!
Attempting to create simultaneity in your writing will weaken it. Every time. This is not because you are a bad writer who cannot write realistically–would you stop trying to do that already? Your job as a writer is to create the illusion of reality. You are a magician!
The very nature of written language makes true simultaneous events impossible. Does that mean, like stage direction, you should cut these details out and leave them up to your readers imagination?
Details are the life-blood of your story. You want the reader to feel that they are really there with your characters, and you need details–the right details–to do that. And then you need to put those details into the right order.
“In wrhiting, one word follows another, instead of being overprinted in the same place… Any attempt to present simultaneity… obscures the cause-effect, motivation-reaction relationship that gives your story meaning.”
In real life, things happen simultaneously. But this is fiction. You are going to manipulate reality. You are going to create the illusion of simultaneity. Magic, in order to be believable, has to follow rules. The rule we are following today is that of chronological order.
If you want your writing to be clear, quick to read, and easy to follow (read: salable) you must pay close attention to the order in which you present your material. Whether it is the order of your sentences, or the elements of the sentences themselves, a strict chronological order is necessary.
You need to turn your whiles and ases into and thens, even if it’s just in your own head.
Let The Magic Begin!
Show, don’t tell. That’s another rule. And I’m going to show you what I mean right now.
Ex.1 The Phone Call
a) As the twins were screaming about whose turn it was to have the red car, the phone began to ring. I was reaching to answer it when I spilled my coffee. Cursing, I attempted to wipe up the mess while my husband emerged from the bedroom, stumbling into the kitchen.
Rubbing his eyes he asked “What’s for breakfast?”
“Answer the phone!” I snapped, barely able to contain my anger.
b) The twins were screaming about whose turn it was to have the red car. Again. The phone, not to be outdone, added its voice to the racket. I jumped to answer it and lukewarm coffee spilled into my lap. Shit! The kids shrieked louder. I grabbed a towel to contain the mess and reached for the cordless. My husband stumbled into the kitchen, rubbing his eyes.
“What’s for breakfast?” he asked.
I whipped the handset at his head. “Answer the damned phone!”
Ex 2. A Glorious Evening
a) Samantha sunk into the cool grass while relishing the warm evening air kissing her skin. As the birds sung the last songs of the day, the sun slipped behind the trees, causing long purple shadows to reach out to envelop her body. It had been a glorious day!
b) Samantha sunk into the cool grass and relished the warm evening air kissing her skin. The sun slipped behind the trees. Birds sung their last songs of the day into the deepening dusk. Long purple fingers of shadow reached out to envelop Sam’s body. What a glorious day!
Are any of these examples glowing examples of literary brilliance? No. But which examples are easier to read? I hope you have answered “b!”
In The Phone Call, attempting to create simultaneity in a) actually decreases the tension of the scene. It adds confusion. The reader has to hold all of these bits of information in their heads and piece it together like a jig saw puzzle once they have all of the information. In b) the reader is able to imagine each event separately, and move onto the next step in the scene without having to hold on to loose pieces. This makes the scene move more quickly, and builds tension rather than confusion.
In A Glorious Evening, simultaneity might seem like a nice way to create a lovely flow of imagery that adds to the dreamy feel of the scene. However, allowing each image to stand on its own gives the reader the opportunity to linger on each moment without other images competing for attention.
As with all “rules” about writing, nothing is set in stone. It’s perfectly fine to write something like “Grinning, Mack laid his cards on the table,” or “Sucking on her pipe, Gretta glared at her grandson.” But in general, it is best to avoid simultaneity when you can. Be conscious of it. When you use it, use it on purpose. Ever word you write is a choice. You, the writer, get to choose the words that best tell your story. You are in control!
What do you think? Have you fallen victim to this attempt to write “realistically?” Have you ever read something that was awkward or confusing, and not been able to articulate why? Simultaneity be the culprit.
Do you agree with my assessment? Or is this just another rule you’re going to ignore while channeling the muses as you let the words flow through you water from a vessel?
Whatever your opinion, tell me all about it in the comments.
Dwight V. Swain’s Techniques of the Selling Writer is my absolute favourite writing craft book. It’s a little old-fashioned, and is geared toward writing salable fiction rather than literary fiction. But I honestly believe it applies to all writers. Give it a go and let me know what you think! Here’s the Amazon.com link.
Dystopian and Post-Apocalyptic themes are all the rage in Science Fiction these days. Arguably, they always have been. Sci-Fi has been a sounding chamber for early warning signals, from George Orwell’s vision of an omniscient government in 1984 to H.G. Well’s prediction of the atomic bomb in The World Set Free, and in some ways that is its greater purpose. Beyond simple entertainment, speculative fiction gives an outlet for great minds to explore the “what-ifs” of new technologies and the effects, both positive and negative, on the world as we know it.
Human nature being what it is, we are drawn to the dark side. Readers and writers alike dive into worst-case-scenario disasters with a kind of morbid fascination. Is this how it will end? Is this what will become of us?
Indeed, dwelling on disaster can be cathartic. We can console ourselves that at least our world isn’t that bad yet. Or that, if it gets that bad, it will still be possible to survive. As with the infamous “preppers,” considering catastrophic events in a logical way and planning for future solutions can be a great way to cope with the anxieties that surround the uncertainty of our fates.
I’m not suggesting you start hoarding cans of sardines and dehydrated mashed potatoes just yet, but hear me out!
Pessimistic Science Fiction has its purpose. Fear can catapult people into action. A lot of sci-fi scares are not all that far fetched, and sometimes fiction is more effective than reality at forcing people outside their comfort bubbles to think about the consequences of their cozy lifestyles.
However, there are risks to clanging the old doom and gloom bell too loudly and to early. People easily become desensitized to alarm. We have seen the effects of this first hand in public opinion on climate change and if/how/when we need to address it. Skepticism, and the desire to maintain the status quo, will win out over making small, necessary changes that cause us minor inconvenience and costs.
… And Enter the Light!
What is SolarPunk?
SolarPunk, a relatively new subgenre of science fiction, is making lightwaves in some circles. It all appears to have started with this post HERE from 2014, and has evolved since. Ultimately, SolarPunk is a response to SteamPunk’s romanticization of the Industrial Revolution and the nihilism of CyberPunk. It envisions an optimistic future in renewable energies and sustainable earth-centric practices are woven together to create egalitarian societies in which which the art, craft, and science of renewable energies takes center stage and egalitarian societies that are more community driven than corporate controlled.
That’s cool and all, but who cares?
Consider the ways that modern environmentalism has stagnated. It has become an echo chamber of like-minded people talking amongst themselves and becoming more and more convinced that they are right. Unfortunately, that conviction has been slow to translate out to the general public and into official channels. My feeling, is that one of the reasons for this failure is not that environmentalists are pushing for too much too soon. It’s that they are trying too hard to uphold the status quo.
Our visions of the future look too much like our current lives. It assures us that we don’t have to change too much. We’ll still drive cars and trucks, the fuel will just be a little bit different. We’ll still eat meat, farming practices will just be tweaked a bit. We’ll get better at taking care of the earth and you’ll hardly even notice the difference!
Science Fiction to the Rescue!
Fear of being labelled as extremist or alarmist has silenced a lot of brilliant people. The goal now seems to be a slow seep into public consciousness rather than radical change. Maybe this will work, maybe it won’t. I don’t have the answers, and I’m not going to pretend that I do. Other, more informed, people have discussed it better than I can. Check out this article on Medium.
But is this really the future that we want? When we imagine these brave new worlds, do we want it to look like the world today? As a reader and writer of science fiction, my answer is an emphatic NO! And I wonder if maybe we could inspire greater participation in the green movement by showing people how wonderful and exciting and DIFFERENT our world could actually be if we chose to make radical changes in our lives.
This all sounds a bit fluffy…
I mentioned the need for optimism in science fiction in a discussion with a writer friend the other day and I was met with some reluctance. Optimism sounds fluffy, doesn’t it? Where’s the conflict in a perfect world? What’s the point of stories without struggle?
Well, let me just clarify that for a moment. Optimism is not perfection. And it’s not easy.
We are primed for pessimism, these days. Just turn on the news, read your social media feeds… bad things are happening, and even when they aren’t we catastrophize good things because that’s what we do. Maybe it’s a survival mechanism that has been twisted by technology, I don’t know. What I do know is that it is increasingly easy to become anxious, depressed, and pessimisitc.
It is a heck of a lot easier to imagine a dystopia than a utopia. People question uptopias, critics pick apart any idea that dares to be too hopeful. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. And it doesn’t mean that if we succeed, we’re going to have a boring story.
The best books are always, in the end, about people not places. People are not perfect. Perfection is poison: to conflict, to character development, to tension, you name it.
A a world that envisions solutions to current problems will have problems of its own. Characters, even in the most utopic world are going to butt heads with life. I invite you, fellow readers and writers, to explore what social, political, interpersonal, environmental, etc. conflicts look like in the exciting possible-futures of SolarPunk.
Are You Up to the SolarPunk Challenge?
If you have read any SolarPunk, drop your recommendations and thoughts in the comments. I have no experience in this subgenre yet, and I’d love to dive in!
Writers, would you care to join me in a little challenge?
Write a flash fiction story in the SolarPunk genre and leave your link in the comments. I’ll write one and post mine in the Story Laboratory by the end of the Month. Let’s see what we can do with a little sunshine!
I have been away for a little while, and I think it’s driven some of my bloggie friends to desperate measures to make sure I’m still alive. I’m fine, really! I’ve just been busy melting water on my stove to make coffee and wash dishes while our water treatment system was on the fritz…
Just kidding. Well, not about the water (but it’s fixed now)
I’m actually very honoured to announce that I have been nominated by Matthew Whiteside of “Seeking Purpose Today” for the Mystery Blogger Award! Matt and I did a fun interview a few weeks ago, which you can watch HERE. He’s a fellow sobernaut and creative force, and if you don’t follow his blog already, you should.
Matt is full of enthusiasm for life, support for other humans, and his blog is overflowing with motivational rambles and casual brilliance. Read a few posts and get inspired to do what you love. It honestly has that effect on me every time!
So? What is the Mystery Award?
“Mystery Blogger Award” is an award for amazing bloggers with ingenious posts. Their blog not only captivates; it inspires and motivates. They are one of the best out there, and they deserve every recognition they get. This award is also for bloggers who find fun and inspiration in blogging, and they do it with so much love and passion. Okoto Enigma
Three Things You Might Not Know About Me
As a recipient of the Mystery Blogger Reward, I am magically compelled to reveal secrets. It’s in the contract. So, here are three things about me that may or may not be news to you:
I do not write because I enjoy it. Many writers say that they love writing. I do not. Writing is hard work. It is a struggle. It is frustrating more often than it is rewarding. I don’t write because I enjoy it. I write because I am compelled to do it. I am driven to challenge myself through my writing, to improve myself and my writing with discipline to the craft. The joy for me is in those fleeting moments of success when I accomplish a particular challenge, communicate a difficult idea, make a connection that wasn’t there before.
I love power-lifting even though I suck at it. Moving heavy things is my preferred method of exercise (although I have had good fun with cross country and back country skiing this year and fat-biking in the warmer seasons)
But Wait! There’s More…
I am also contractually obligated to answer five questions posed by the person who has nominated me for the award. So here are Matt’s questions and my answers…
Why are you on this planet? I am not a spiritual kind of person. I don’t believe in fate or higher-purposes or anything like that. I don’t think anyone is born for a particular reason. However, since I am here, I believe in making the best of it. For me, that means doing the best I can at the things that are important to me, supporting the people I love, and taking care of my little slice of earth.
Are you Happy? This is another trick question. Happiness is not a continuous state. If we were happy all the time, happiness would have no meaning. I am generally content and at peace with myself. I have moments of joy and happiness, and moments of all the other emotions on the spectrum. I do not believe that happiness has any more value than any other human emotion and it is a mistake to place too much emphasis on attaining it. Trying to capture and sustain happiness is the surest way to unhappiness that there is.
What is your favorite Myth? I’ve been reading a lot of Norse myths with my kids lately, and one of my favourites is the one where Thor’s hammer, Mjollnir, is stolen by the giants and Thor and Loki dress in drag–pretending to be the goddess Freya and one of her maidservants–in order to get the hammer back.
How tall are you? I am the shortest person in my family, at a measly 5’9″. Technically, I’m taller than my mom, but not by much and only because she’s shrinking. I guess I’m taller than my kids, for now. My husband’s family towers over me, and the kids aren’t far behind.
Can you make me laugh? Please Explain? I think I have, once or twice. The trick is figuring out when I’m being serious and when I’m not. I always think I’m hilarious, especially when I’m pretending not to be.
Now It’s My Turn!
Now I get to nominate a few of you hapless bloggies… My victims are:
Simon Farnell of “Planet Simon” – Simon has tons of interesting Sci-Fi goodies on his blog and has been supremely supportive of my own attempt at blogging. We have plans to do some collaborating and guest posting, but I’ve been slagging off a bit. Give him a follow, and tell him I’m sorry, will ya?
Teresa Grabs of “The Haunted Wordsmith” – Teresa is a master of flash fiction and micro fiction. I read often and don’t comment enough. I highly recommend following her work!
Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is this:
Thank whoever gifted you and include a link to their blog
Mention the creator of the award and provide a link as well
Tell your readers 3 things about yourself
Answer the questions from the person who gifted you the Award
Choose bloggers that you wish to gift the Award to no more than 3
Ask 5 questions of your choice with one weird or funny one
Notify those you gift the Award to
My questions for you:
What writer or book made you want to be a writer?
What is the value of speculative fiction in the modern world?
Is there anyone that you will not allow to read your work?