Monday, 20 September 2010

Writing to Tell vs. Writing to Sell

I'm sure I'm not the only one whose editor has said, "This is telling. SHOW your reader . . . ".

Here's an example —

Telling: Mary showered before dressing.

Showing: Mary stepped from the steaming shower and wrapped herself in a thick white terrycloth towel. Her hair was bound to keep it dry, but now she let it down. She watched the coppery curls fall about her bare shoulders in the foggy mirror, her reflection an apparition in the haze.

In the showing example, the reader is in the bathroom with Mary. While her actual features are blurred in the foggy mirror, we know she has coppery hair and it's long enough that if falls about her shoulders.

Here's another one —

Telling: John played the guitar.

Showing: The sound was as gentle as a pleasured woman’s moan yet seemed almost too big for the tiny room. John closed his eyes, enjoying the erotic sensation of the hum of the cords reverberating through his belly. He let his fingers slide over the strings and listened to the slow gut-twisting refrain.

This example shows us John is an experienced guitarist. We see him playing the instrument in a small room, possibly a recording studio. The piece he's playing awakens particular emotions in him, which the reader also gets a sense of.

How do we know any of this? Because we've been shown through the narrative.

We can also be shown a story through dialog. Look at these examples —

Telling: Mary paled, as if she'd seen a ghost.

Showing: "Mary, you're white as a sheet. You look like you've seen a ghost."

Telling: John loved dogs, but not jumping all over him.

Showing: "Mary, you know I love Spike, but would you mind controlling him?"

In the business of writing fiction, writers must tell a story in such a way that readers can see, and feel, what's happening in the story. But does this make us storytellers or story showers?

Traditional storytelling goes back well before the written word — to a time of oral storytelling. This is the most intimate form of storytelling, as both the storyteller and the audience gather in a close environment to hear the tale. I won't go into a history of oral storytelling here, but give you some examples of how this art is used.

Imagine you're a medieval trader of exotic spices or fabrics, and you're visiting a town to sell your wares. The local lord invites you into his home where he trades a hot meal and a bed for the night in exchange for you telling him tales of your travels. What tales would you tell? One of a dangerous ocean voyage? Perhaps, exotic people from other countries? Maybe you'll relate some of the ancient stories you were told while in that foreign country.

What if you were a time traveler who's gone back in time and you must explain about where you came from and how you found yourself in the past? How do you explain cars, planes and walking on the moon to someone who wants to know what the future is like?

As writers, we take these stories and write them in such a way that readers are pulled in, much the same as listening to traditional oral storytellers, and become part of the story. The biggest difference is that oral storytelling relies heavily on watching the storyteller, as he/she may become animated or perhaps sing to embellish the story. With fiction, the reader only has the page filled with words and their imagination. Their imagination is fueled by the words we put on those pages. And while a simple story, such as Cinderella, might be enough to entertain young children, an adult wants a story with a lot more meat in it. We want to tell a story to keep our readers up all night turning pages, not tell a bedtime story that puts them to sleep.

One of my favorite stories is an ancient Danish ballad called Hellelil and Hildrebrand. It was translated into English in 1891. The ballad, or a story written as poetry, tells the story of forbidden love. Kind of the Romeo and Juliet of Denmark, if you will. In my next example, I've pulled a scene from the ballad in which Hellelil, explains how her father, the king, has twelve knights watching over her safety, and how she's fallen in love with one of them. Hildebrand happens to be the son of the King of England. Son of royalty or not, he's still just a knight and she's a princess. Read this scene and see what you get from it —

My father was good king and lord,
Knights fifteen served before his board.

He taught me sewing royally,
Twelve knights had watch and ward of me.

Well served eleven day by day,
To folly the twelfth did me bewray.

And this same was hight Hildebrand,
The King's son of the English Land.

But in bower were we no sooner laid
Than the truth thereof to my father was said.

Then loud he cried o'er garth and hall:
'Stand up, my men, and arm ye all!

'Yea draw on mail and dally not,
Hard neck lord Hildebrand hath got!'


While this excerpt is telling an interesting story, it's not what today's mass market readers want.

Now read my excerpt, retelling what you've just read above, but in a format that makes the story sellable —

"You must go." She pushed her lover's shoulders, yet he would not release her.

"I'll not leave you, Hellelil. I love you. No one will keep us apart."

Her heart pounded in her breast, but she couldn't tell if it was from the danger they were both in or the thought of never seeing Hildebrand again. Most likely it was both. He was her one true love, but she knew if her father found them together like this, his anger would know no end.

"Please, Hildebrand. If my father catches you here, he'll show no mercy. You know I'm promised to another."


"I'm a Prince of England, and I will have you."

He embraced her within the safety of his powerful arms. The scent of their recent lovemaking clung to his skin. One more kiss, one more embrace, certainly laying with him one more night would do no harm. She knew they were both already meant for Purgatory. He'd taken the virginity she so gladly gave him, for she loved him too, and would rather him have the gift of her innocence than a man she didn't love.

Yes, one more night . . .

Just then, there was no mistaking the sound of her father's voice bellowing below stairs.

"Hildebrand has gone too far. I will see his head on a pike at my gates before the day is out."

The sound of clanging metal grew louder as her father's knights ascended the narrow stairs.

Hellelil's tear-filled gaze flashed across Hildebrand's face. She sought to memorize everything about him. The color of his eyes, the wave in his hair . . . his kiss-swollen lips.

She stroked her fingers across those lips, remembering the feel of them on hers not moments before. Her chamber door was locked, but it would not remain closed for long. One more kiss was all there was time for.

She pulled him down to her. "Kiss me, Hildebrand. For if I'm to die this day, I will take the sweet memory of your kiss with me."


Hey, I write romance so you knew that would be schmaltzy! But, as you can see, the modern day version is the same scene, but it's written in such a way as to flesh out the scene. It puts you in the room with Hellelil and Hildrebrand, and lets you into Hellelil's head, and heart, by telling the story through her point of view. You feel her anxiety of being torn between her love for Hildebrand and the fear of their being caught together. Her heart pounds, she touches his lips with her fingertips, her love races through her in a desperate attempt at showing one last act of that love. We feel a great sense of urgency in this piece that we don’t feel in the original ballad.

The reader also knows Hildebrand's feelings toward Hellelil by his words and the narrative action. Hildebrand holds Hellelil within the protection of his strong arms, his declaration of love, and his promise to have her as his own. We sense because he's a prince of another realm that he holds some stature in the household where he is. He's not just a simple knight who's taken the virginity of the lord's daughter in a heartless dalliance — he loves her. Hildebrand is a man of honor and breeding, and he knows his own heart and mind. So what if she's promised to another.

Did you get any of that from the original ballad? Didn't think so. Maybe a flicker if you applied it to another romance story you read, or a movie you saw, or even likened it to Romeo and Juliet. But reading my version puts it all out there in black and white without having to reference and compare it to something else to give it credit. This story is now sellable in today's market.

By the way, the image above is called Meeting on the Turret Stairs and was painted by Sir Frederick William Burton in 1864. The original is hanging in a private viewing room at the National Gallery in Dublin Ireland. I've seen it. It's incredible! The characters in this painting are Hellelil and Hildebrand. Note the Celtic motif on his tabard and the Norse motif on her gown. Remember, he's a price of England and she's a Danish princess.

So, here's my challenge to you —

Take a passage from a classic tale and turn it into a excerpt geared for today's market. Doesn't matter which tale it is. It doesn't have to be romance. Any work of classic fiction will do — fairy tale, ballad, poetry, etc. Take a short scene or a passage from a scene and rewrite it so it will appeal to today's readers . . . something that will sell to an adult audience.

Now, get writing!

Just for fun, here's an Irish seanachaí (pronounced shan-a-kee . . . storyteller or teller of old lore) spinning a great yarn.



Sunday, 5 September 2010

The Fallacy of Writer’s Block

Writer's Block - n. Psychological inability to begin or continue work on a piece of writing.

Imagine this scenario —

You're at your desk. You've been in a writing frenzy; the words are pouring out of you like water. Suddenly you're sweating, struggling to find the right words, then story comes to a blinding halt. You sit back and think about it for a while. What happens next?

You check your email to see if anyone wants to talk to you, because obviously, your characters don't want to. You check Facebook. Check your crops at Farmville. You might even make a few phone calls. They're just little things, right?

Back at your story, you reread the last page or two to catch up. You're ready to write again, but when you come to the last thing you wrote two hours ago you suffer the same problem. What happens next? You've gotta think about it for a while, so you get up and vacuum the floor.

Back at your desk, you look at the screen before you. The cursor is blinking where you left it. It's like a heartbeat, and the more you stare at it, the faster it seems to blink, as if adrenaline is feeding it. Your own heartbeat speeds up.

You decide the dishes need washing. After all, the last week you've neglected most house chores because of your writing frenzy. You just need a break and tidying up is as good as anything, right?

By the end of the week, your house is sparkling. And the dogs have had so many walks they're hiding from you! But something's off. It's like everything you've spent the week polishing are now winking at you, mocking you. You look around for something else to clean, but there's nothing. There's just a black cloud hovering over your chair at the desk, and it's churning like a slow moving hurricane, flashes of lightning sparking off each other. Looking closely, it's almost as if the cumulus formations resemble your character's faces and they're contorted in pain, pleading for you to save them.

Frightened, you back away. This dark cloud is pressing down on you. The page cursor blinks heavily, steadily, demanding you to sit down and write. You pull at your hair, your own face contorting, and shout, "I can't write. I can't think of what happens next. My muse isn't talking to me anymore. I have writer's block!"

Go on. Admit it. This is you. Or has been at some point in your writing life. All writers suffer from some sort of 'block' that sends them into housekeeping mode. Or the do-anything-but-write mode. It's at this point when you can think of a hundred other things that must get done right away, such as cleaning the cat box or raking dog dirt from the lawn, rather than sort out why your story is suffering.

In an effort to define writer's block, I've asked some of today's popular writers and a book reviewer for their take on things.

1) Do you believe in the traditional writer's block or just a stilted thought process?

Denise Lynn, author of Pregnant by the Warrior, Harlequin - I don't buy into writers block. I think its nothing more than an excuse to keep us from the page. It's a way of not having to admit, or face, the real reason(s) that keep us from working.

Writing is a job; just like any other job it requires you to show up. As a human being, we all have other responsibilities that sometimes keep us from working. Kids, parents, family, home, illness, pets, all require our attention, too and at times that attention gets more focused on our personal stuff more than our work stuff. That’s just life and it has to be dealt with regardless of the job we hold.

Isabo Kelly, author of Mate Run, part of the Fang Bangers anthology, Ravenous Romance - I don't really believe in writer's block. I think you can get stuck in a story and you need to talk it through with other writer friends or just stare into space thinking how to fix the problem. I do believe we writers will put off writing for no good reason and then call it writer's block. Even though writing is something we love to do, we also procrastinate sitting down and actually putting words on the page for a variety of reasons . . . And if this goes on for a while and we can't hear the muse calling, we liked to say we're blocked. But personally, I think this is just an excuse to make our procrastination sound artistic.

Charlene Raddon, author of To Have and To Hold, Zebra - For me I'd say it's more a stilted thought process. It's not being sure what to write next. The scene or the words refuse to come to my mind.

Elizabeth Delisi, author of Restless Spirit, part of the One Touch Beyond anthology, Cerridwen Press - I do believe you can reach a point where you're temporarily unable to write. There are, no doubt, as many different reasons for this as there are writers.

Viviane Crystal, book reviewer, Crystal Book Reviews - I think traditional writer's block is a bored and perhaps even frustrated brain process. Great writers of fiction and even of reviews get bored when only stereotypical ideas or language rules the day (and night). In my own experience, I write book reviews. If a novel has nothing that stands out from what anyone else has written on a topic, I'm generally bored silly and don't have one clue to what I can write that is unique. Reviews can be stereotypical, as well, which we all know. The opposite can happen when the language, plot, characters, etc. are so vividly, creatively, and enchantingly wonderful that I want my review to capture that magic and convey it to the reader. Sometimes I have to wait a few days before the right words come. For this latter scenario, I rarely get writer's block for more than a few days. And oh, how I love the latter challenge!

2) Name three reasons why we get blocked.

DL - Sometimes fear keeps us from the page – but who wants to say, “I’m afraid I’ll blow this” when it’s easier to say we have writer’s block. At some point in time, I’m sure just about every writer questions their ability – that’s normal, it doesn’t make you special, nor is it an excuse to quit.

Who wants to admit they’ve tackled a project too far out of their reach, when it’s easier to give up and blame it on writer’s block? How many people want to admit they’ve bitten off far more than they can handle with the kids, family, home, day job, writing, and all the other extras when it’s easier to set aside the writing and declare writer’s block?

Sometimes lack of focus keeps us from the page. If that’s the case, it’s time to take a step back and investigate the lack. If it’s too many irons in the fire, dump some of the irons. If you can’t find a reason, make an appointment with your doctor to make certain nothing is wrong physically – or to tackle whatever is wrong.

IK - There are a lot of reasons why we stop writing in the middle of a story or won't sit down to write. But I think my personal top three are —

I've reached a point in the story where I don't know what happens next, or I don't know how to get my characters out of the mess I've gotten them into, or the scene itself isn't working and I can't decide why.

The story seems to be grinding along and is actually a little boring to write, but I don't know how to speed things up.

And I'm feeling all manner of fears and insecurities and they're yelling louder than my imagination.

CR - Facing a scene we feel unsure of.

Often it turns out that the scene just wasn't right or didn't belong in the book.

Too many personal problems can certainly interfere and create a block.

ED - You started the story in the wrong place.

You haven't programmed enough conflict into the story.

You're trying to "write to the market" in a hot genre that you don't particularly like, instead of writing what you love.

VC - Three reasons I get bored are —

Stereotypical writing on the author's side.

Frustration that I can't find the perfect words for a review no matter where my opinion lies on a book.

Sometimes failure to find the right words to address a broad range of audiences, even beyond what a novel seems geared toward.

I would add a fourth - being critical in an objective manner that is gracious, without being cynical, sarcastic, or just plain insulting.

3) What tricks do you use to get your creative juices flowing again?

DL - I don’t have any tricks to get me to the page—it’s my job, it’s what I do for a living, so I sit down and write. Does that mean I never get stuck? Uh, no. When that happens it’s not writer’s block, it’s because I screwed up the story somewhere. I go backwards scene-by-scene to find out where and fix it.

Sometimes the fix is nothing more than changing the POV character, and sometimes it’s an entire rewrite.

Sometimes I just don’t feel like working and nothing can get me to the page. Then it’s time to play hooky for a day, or time to schedule a vacation in the mountains.

IK - One thing I've found works every time is to read someone else's fiction. Taking a week away from my current WIP to indulge in a reading holiday really helps get my own juices flowing again. It reminds me why I love to tell stories and it really brings my imagination back to life. I tend to put off reading fiction while I'm writing a book so I don't get distracted from my own storyline. I know this isn't a good thing for a writer. But I still fall prey to this habit. And if my story is dragging, it turns out this is the most important way to wake me up again—read! Simple, right? You'd think I'd take note and stop setting aside pleasure reading while I'm writing.

Another thing that works really well is to get together with another writer friend(s) and do a brainstorming session then a writing session all at the same time. Sitting with a friend will force you to put at least a few words on the page—because someone is watching! Also, if the reason you're not working is because the story itself has problems, you can work those out with another writer. Having a fresh perspective can do wonders.

And finally, I take a shower. I think my muse lives in the bathroom. J And when I'm showering, I can let my imagination wander through my current WIP without worrying about interruptions or the other things I'm supposed to be doing. Actually, this can work doing any chore that doesn't require much thought. But I find the shower works wonders for me personally.

CR - Just sit down and write. Read a book that inspires you, an old favorite from your keepers' shelf. Talk things over with a friend to get a different perception. Write in first person for a new perspective.

ED - Sometimes rereading a favorite book does the trick. It can be inspirational to take those one-sentence descriptions of movies from the TV Guide and develop a story outline around that description. Playing "what if" with people you see in a public place, say a mall, can give you new ideas. And sometimes you just have to sit down and force yourself to write, even if all you write is, "I hate writer's block" over and over--the simple action of writing anything can often shake loose the blockage.

VC - The tricks I use to get the creative juices flowing —

Look for a unique quote from the book or scene that exemplifies the overall theme of the book - or even its opposite. If I can't find that quote in the book, I may look for one on the topic itself from my notes, research, etc.

I ask the question: What's the special essence of this novel that the writer is suggesting as a purpose - whether that be entertainment, educational, argumentative, provocative, supportive, etc.?

I ask what parts of this novel will touch people and why - that means mentally (reason/logic) as well as emotionally, spiritually, fantasy, whatever it is. Who else has written on this topic and how does that treatment resemble or differ from this story?

And then sometimes, it's just what I call the creative muse, where the right words stream through my brain, heart and typing fingers and the result is sheer magic! That's not a fat ego; that's gratefulness for a gift that occasionally touches me, especially with a great work! There are so many events in the world that can foster creative juices, as well as people in our lives, personally, on the news, in magazines, radio, etc. - the key for me is to move out of pondering my own inability and out to what is generative and inspiring.


So what have we learned through these great ladies? Does writer's block exist? No, not really. Family commitments aside, what are some things that keep us from writing?

1) Fear of failure or fear of success - Both challenge us in their own way. Fear of failure might have us comparing our work to others, saying, "I'll never be that good. They won't like me." Fear of success might have us stressing over the 'what ifs' — "What if I get a three book contract. OMG, I'll never be able to write three books in a year."

2) Losing ones way while writing - For me personally, plotting a story is like routing a road trip. As I'm writing a story and following along with my plot, it's like reading a road map while driving. If, while I'm writing, I come to a dead-end in the story, I think, "What would I do in the car when I come to a dead-end in the road?" Turn around! Go back to the last junction where I knew where I was and find another route. Judging by the ladies above, I'd say they think along the same lines. It's not the muse, it's not you, it's not anyone specific. It's not even the characters. It's the story itself. Something's not working, which means going back over your plot and examining how you got to this point. Maybe you need to do more research. Maybe you have too many characters or not enough. Perhaps there's not enough story in your story. And sometimes we just need a break after a writing frenzy. Exhaustion plays a huge role in how we deal with writing stresses.

3) Trying to write outside of our comfort zone - The market changes quickly and, unfortunately, we can't all write as quickly to cater for those changes, which can be frustrating when trying to sell our work. What we submit today might cater to the current market, but by the time it's read at the publisher we've submitted to, the market may have changed. We all know that getting a reply from a publisher or agent can take months. In that time, the whole market could have changed. The best example is with Dorchester. I submitted to them in March this year and by July they'd announced they were going digital!

4) Boredom - Chances if you're bored with the story, it won't go anywhere. And if you're bored, your reader will be too. Avoid cliché's and stereotyping. Lazy writing will lose readers. Look for ways to say something. It's quite possible that the whole section needs to come out, even if it's a great passage, it might not work in this context. Save it to a file and see if you can use it later, or in another story. Aim to keep things moving forward. If you're engaged, your reader will be too.

5) Feeling overwhelmed - If you have too much on your plate, think about prioritizing. What are the top five things are THE most important at this time. If you put writing at #5, or it falls into the 6 to 10 area, then you have too much on your plate. Look at your top five items and the importance you put on them. Is checking Farmville more important than getting your book finished? If so, then maybe you love the idea of being a writer, but don't have the dedication. It's difficult, but sometimes you just have to stop doing things that are habit to do the things you really want to do. By doing that you create new and better habits.

Are there ways to get through your block? Certainly.

1) Read more - Easy! Chances are you're writing in a genre you love reading, so get reading. Go to your keepers' shelf and reread some of your favorite titles. What was it about those books that made them keepers for you? Was it one or more of these books that inspired you to write? If so, what was it about those books that inspired you? And because the market changes quickly, don't forget to read new writers' works. While you're at it, look at whose publishing those authors. This is a good indication of where to submit your work when it's ready.

2) Look at the structure of your story - Can it be changed to make it more exciting? When a story works well, the words will pour out of you once more. Sure, you'll have rocky places, but as long as the story is moving forward, it's all good!

3) Talk it out - Talk with a friend, critique partner or writing group you're involved in. That's what they're there for. Remember the old adage when seeing a doctor — get a second opinion. There's nothing like a new and fresh perspective.

4) Take a break - Your brain works better when it's rested. And fed. And not just food. Get out of the house for a while. Take a walk to clear the cobwebs. Go to gathering places and people watch — what characteristics to people have that draws your gaze and makes you watch them? You can use those in your story, as long as it helps move the story forward.

Remember that saying you heard when you first started writing? Write what you know! Stories come from life experiences, research, reading . . . life in general. You can only experience life by getting out of the house and living it.

Even if you're just sitting in the garden listening to the sheets flapping on the drying line, listen to them. What are they telling you? Sails of a ship on the high seas maybe? What adventure are they on? Is this a pirate ship or military vessel? Maybe it has a female captain. Who is she? How did she come to captain her own ship?

Or maybe they're just sheets on a drying line behind a sod house on the prairie and the sun is beating down, cracking the parched earth. Is she alone, widowed, married . . . ? Does she hear a wagon coming, chains clinking on the horse's harness? Who's coming and what news do they carry?

Use your imagination for not just telling the story, but also for coming up with plotting, or even starting a new story. The break away from the house may just be a trip to the library and looking through actual books rather than relying on the internet.

5) Stop procrastinating - As Nike coined, Just Do It! You must have thought there was a great story in you waiting to be told or you wouldn't have sat down to write it. You need to remind yourself what that story was. Once you have, just get it out. Don't try to edit while you're writing. Just get the story out. Tell your story in your own way. Edits will come later.


Finally, I can highly recommend a newly released guide for writers called The Blocked Writer's Book of the Dead: Bringing Your Writing Back to Life by Dr. David Rasch, Director of the Stanford Help Center.

Dr. Rasch teaches courses on overcoming writing blocks and procrastination. His book is one you'll want to print out, as it's a short workbook that can help you get through whatever block you may have.

It will also help you learn to prioritize and see, on paper in black and white, where you really are, emotionally, with your writing.

The topic of writer's block is deep and convoluted, but I hope you find something here to help you through your blocks and get your story back on track.

Do you have tips on combating writing blocks? Post them in a comment. I'd love to hear how you deal with the stresses of writing.