February 6th, 2005

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Show, don't tell (Good advice or not?)

matociquala has written some wise stuff here about the show, don't tell advice. Over on rasfc, however, they are going rather overboard on pooh-poohing this advice (in my opinion anyway). The truth is, that like all writing advice, it shouldn't be applied willy nilly. I do find myself writing show, don't tell as a comment on some of my students' stories. Also, as matociquala says it's something that's multilayered or, as she puts it, a koan not a piece of prescriptive advie.

It might be helpful to word in differently. On the poetry course I've just finished, show, don't tell is phrased as:

don't explain your message, exemplify it through the use of images or narrative (my emphasis)

That gave me a lightbulb moment with regard to narrative/exposition in fiction (the parts that I always used to call "joining bits").

Narrative/exposition is fine as long as it's engaging to read and it will be engaging to read if you show little moments in detail and give examples. They don't have to be blown up into complete scenes (a mistake I used to make -- dramatise everything!), but take the vividness of a moment and include it in the narrative summary. It's what Ursula LeGuin calls Crowding and leaping in her book on writing Steering the Craft.
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Poetry or prose?

If I appear to be writing a flurry of posts, it's because I'm gathering some bits and pieces I've written in various other places, like rasfc or one of the OU's FirstClass conferences, and posting them here so I'll be able to find them again if I need them.

In one of the OU's writers' conferences, someone had posted saying that she was unconvinced by free verse. Surely, she said, it was just prose broken up? She then posted an example which I haven't copied here, but it was a short paragraph of prose, broken up with short lines, as in a poem. Collapse )
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The first 1000 words

Over on rec.arts.sf.compostion, Elf Sternberg posted a list of the things he thought a story should do in the first 1000 words. Despite initial scepticism, quite a few newsgroup denizens discovered that they had done most, if not all, of what he suggested. Here's what I said about the novel I'm working on at the moment: Collapse )
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Critiquing and revising

This is a slightly modified version of a message I posted to my writing students. As they're beginners, some of this may seem obvious, but writing it also clarified my own thoughts on the revision process and the order in which I ought to tackle it when I've finished the first draft.

When you're critiquing a story, there are lots of possible things you can comment on. When you're looking at one of your own stories with a view to improving it, there are lots of things you can change. After thinking about it for a while, I decided there was what you could call a hierarchy of changes.

If you're asking someone to comment on your story, it's often helpful if you can specify what sort of level of critique you need. Do you want comments on whether the story works overall, or do you want line-by-line comments on the sentence level prose? Also, when you're revising a story of your own, you need to bear in mind the possible levels of change. It's not very helpful to spend hours polishing part of your novel at the sentence level if you're later going to cut most of that chapter. This is something I wish I had realised years ago. Until fairly recently, my idea of revising was sentence level polishing. Well, that's not quite true; I did hack stuff about, but often only after I'd spent time polishing it.

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Kipling's nine and sixty ways -- and example

From the latest issue of Mslexia (a magazine "for women who write")

On page 17 from an interview with Monica Ali (author of Brick Lane highly praised literary first novel) she says of her writing method, "Acclimatise yourself to your imaginative world by spending two hours editing yesterday's work. Then press on steadily crafting sentences, stopping regularly to press Word Count."

On page 19 from an article on how to make the best of short periods of writing time: "Suzy was blocked because she always fiddled obsessively with her previous day's work before she began writing. Once she learned to put the old words behind her the new words flowed."

So there you are. *g*
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