Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Misused Writing Advice: Show, Don’t Tell

When You’re Showing Too Much
Rebecca Mikkelson, CBD Authors 4 Authors Publishing
Every piece of advice that we’re going to talk about in this series has good intentions at its origin, but has evolved into something either misused or something inviolable. “Show, don’t tell” is the latter. In itself, “show, don’t tell” is great advice, but it’s morphed into an absolute rule.


Originally, this advice was thought to be attributed to Anton Chekov, but the author we really have to thank for “show, don’t tell,” is Percy Lubbock from his book The Craft of Fiction. There are several other famous authors whom readers and writers would have heard similar adages from, however. One such author is Chuck Palahniuk, author of the novel Fight Club, who recommended a ban on what he called “thought verbs,” which would mean taking out words like “believes,” “knows,” and “thinks.”

When it’s bad

This is a little bit of a mixed bag because what the advice is intended for isn’t bad. A lot of the time this advice is misused in the sense that new writers think that you have to use it for not only emotions but actions and time as well. There is a time and a place for it, to be sure.
Your reader does not need to know every single decision that your character makes of why he turns left or right unless it’s going to affect where the plot is going to go (ie, if the character turns right, he’ll go home, but if the character turns left, he’ll go on an adventure). It’s really not critical information, and neither is the entire journey of the travels. It’s okay to have travel gaps with scene breaks, we promise. This is secondary information in the story (to a point—there are exceptions to this, like writing adventure novels); you’re going to weigh your readers down and fatigue them before the first act of the book is finished if you put every little thing in there. 
There is one last bone I have to pick with overuse of “show, don’t tell,” and that’s when it’s used in the setting. And I feel a little bit like a hypocrite even writing this because I’m regularly guilty of it when I write. Your reader deserves to have an immersive experience in your world, but for the love of God don’t bludgeon them with it. One author in particular I think has a hefty amount to blame on this last bit is the great JRR Tolkien himself. 
Please, put away your pitchforks and let me explain. 
JRRT is an amazing storyteller and an even more amazing linguist. Lord of the Rings is one of my favorite stories out there, but with every fiber of my being do I hate the sheer amount of detail that is crammed into each page. It is wholly unnecessary to devote pages upon pages upon pages to a single field as Tolkien has been known to do.

When it’s good

This one should be pretty obvious. You want your reader to have an immersive experience in your story, and they certainly deserve one, but that doesn’t always mean showing every detail. Sometimes it’s more fun for readers when authors subscribe to the Hemmingway “Iceberg Method,” and the reader can make their own theories about what’s happening. 
When it comes to “show, don’t tell,” this is where Palahniuk’s advice on “thought verbs” (also “telling verbs”) should be heeded. Your reader wants to feel what your character is feeling, not be told what they’re feeling. For example, here is the same idea, one version with telling and one with showing:
He felt awful.

He groaned and let his head fall back into the pillow. His chest rattled with mucus when he breathed and his eyes ached when the light flicked on above him. Why would anyone think it was a good idea to turn on his light when he was in this condition?
In the first example, we know the character feels bad. In the second, we know why he feels bad and sympathize with his plight. 
Your goal as a writer should not only be to tell a good story, but to make your reader forget that they’re reading it and not along for the ride with the characters themselves. 

How to make sure you’re not going overboard with your showing

One of the easiest ways to make sure you’re not going overboard is to identify when it’s better to tell than to show. This is easier said than done, especially when you’re a new writer. These have been briefly touched on already, but here are just a few places where it’s more beneficial to tell and not show:
  • Going from Point A to Point B when it doesn’t have an effect on plot or character development.
  • Passage of time.
  • Telling some of the simpler backstory for characters. (We don’t need to see Character A actually tilling the fields to learn he’s worked on a farm in the past when he comes across a new farmer doing something he wouldn’t have done. All we need is a brief, “He wouldn’t have done it that way when he was working the land.”)
Another way to make sure that you don’t get too lost in the details is to have critique partners and readers and ask them to keep in mind the details—are there enough, or are there far too many? For me, my husband alpha reads my work when he has the time, and he’s been given explicit instructions to comment “Tolkien Field” in the sections that I go overboard in.

Next Time
Have you ever heard writing advice that seemed odd? Let us know on Twitter or Facebook! Keep an eye out for next month’s Misused Writing Advice: Limit Your POV.

And join us next week for an interview with author Diane Anthony for the relaunch of her SciFi novel Supernova.

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Wednesday, February 19, 2020

New Authors: A Character in Your Own Story

Creating characters
Rebecca Mikkelson, CBD Authors 4 Authors Publishing
You would think that creating characters would be an easy task, but have you ever heard another writer complain, “My character isn’t doing what I want, that bastard”? I promise those writers aren’t crazy or secretly writing about their multiple personalities, though sometimes, as the author, it might feel like it. Characters take on a life of their own once they’re created, so before they get out of hand, you need to know the basics about them for when they try to get too crazy and give you a double bird while yelling, “You’re not my real mom!”

The kinds of characters

I don’t want to overload you with too much information here, but if you want more than a basic definition, you can head over to our blog series here, where we talk about the types of characters and their roles in more detail. 
Protagonist: This is the character who drives the story; their actions form the major turning points. You cannot have a story without one.
Antagonist: Like the protagonist, the antagonist is necessary to the story and is the main force opposing the protagonist.
Main Character: This is a character who provides a point of view; they might be the protagonist, and they might not be.
Deuteragonist: This character is similar but secondary to the protagonist. At major turning points of the story, their actions will usually follow the protagonist’s.
Hero or Heroine: These can be main characters, but a more useful definition is its primary one: someone admirable, noble, and courageous who achieves great feats or is endowed with great abilities.
Villain: The villains commit evil or have evil motives. Similar to the relationship between protagonists and main characters, villains and antagonists often overlap but are separate roles.
Secondary Characters: These characters are important support for the protagonist, antagonist, deuteragonist, and/or main characters.
Tertiary Characters: Their roles are even smaller than secondary characters’. They perform important roles for a scene or two and may even have names but quickly disappear.
Background Characters: These are characters are more like props than actual characters; background characters exist to populate the world of the story. 

Your Character

There are a lot of things to keep track of with your character; where they’re from, what their names are, nicknames, personality type, positive traits, negative traits, looks, where they’re from, what book they show up in, their occupation, if they have a title, and the list goes on and on and on. 
We would highly recommend having a spreadsheet for keeping all of this information straight and consistent throughout your book(s).
For this blog, I just want to give two examples of how to craft your characters with looks and personality; otherwise, I’ll be writing you a book you didn’t ask for. 
This sounds like it would be pretty self-explanatory, but if you don’t know what your characters look like, neither do your readers. Your character’s looks will also affect how everyone else in the book responds to them, much in the same way as the real world. If you’re going to give your main character green eyes in a brown-eyed world, they’re going to be unique and treated either as a wonder or an oddity. And this can also change the way a character interacts with themselves. For example, in Ambrosia by Madison Wheatley, her main character is overweight, and her struggle is accepting herself on her journey to get healthier. 
Also, depending on how many years your story takes place over, you’re going to need to think about how your characters age. Does your female MC spot a couple of wrinkles? Is there a touch of gray in your silver fox’s male MC’s hair?
Like your character’s looks, their personalities will also affect the plot and how people interact with them. We have all seen the character who struggles with a bad attitude, and no one wants to interact with him, except for the one friend who has seen his teddy bear interior. Maybe this character is the protagonist, and he has to learn how to not push everyone away so that after that zombie invasion, he can save the world.  
Knowing what kind of personality your character has will not only allow your reader to celebrate any growth in the character, but it will also alert them to whether or not they’re acting out of character. 

How your characters interact with each other

I’ve touched on this a little bit, but I did want to cover it again. How your main characters and secondary characters interact with each other is essential to how your story flows. I don’t just mean do they get along or not, but this includes what interpersonal relationships your characters have with each other. 
Are they a mother and daughter who fight all the time? Maybe they’re brother and sister and best buds for life. Do you have brothers who are mortal enemies battling it out for the control of a kingdom?

Character motivation

Last, but certainly not least, I want to talk about your character’s motivation. What drives them to make the choices that they make? If your character doesn’t have a motivation, your story will either not make sense or lack depth. 
What I mean here is that your characters can’t just be dragged along in the story. They aren’t the five-year-olds whose parents tell them they’re coming because they said so. They have to affect the story, even if that means writing characters who are totally opposite of something you would normally do, say, or think. 

Join us next week for our monthly series on misused writing advice, where we talk about the rule of show, don’t tell.

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Wednesday, February 12, 2020

New Authors: Plot Makes the World Go Round

Where your story is going
Rebecca Mikkelson, CBD Authors 4 Authors Publishing
One of the most important in your work is going to be the plot. This feels a little bit like the chicken and the egg conundrum where you might be asking yourself, “What really does come first: plot, world, or characters?” For the purposes of this series, we’re going to start with the plot. 

Where is your story going?

First thing’s first, you need to have an idea. 
That seems self-explanatory, but there’s more: you need to have a complete idea. This doesn’t mean that you need to have your whole trilogy planned out before you even start writing; it means that you need to know where the story is going to end. It could be a happily ever after (the guy finally gets the girl and they’ll love each other until their dying days), the chosen one saving the world against an invasion, or the detective catches his or her man, just to name a few. 
It’s a lot easier to get to your destination—even if it takes unexpected turns along the way—if you know where it is. 
Plotter vs Pantser
Ahh, the age-old debate: do you actively plot your story until you already have it written, or do you wing it? There’s no wrong answer in what kind of writer you are, but depending on the type, you’ll need a different set of skills.
For those of you who have never heard the terms “plotter” and “pantser,” a plotter is someone who will have their whole novel summarized, including having each chapter planned from start to finish to make sure they get to the end of their book—they basically have the whole book written before they really start writing. Don’t worry, this still doesn’t mean that you have to have every chapter of every book in your entire series before you can even start writing book one. You can take it a book at a time. 
A pantser is the total opposite: they wing it. The name comes from the saying, “Flying by the seat of his pants.”  These writers start with an idea and write until they’ve finished. If you’re a pantser, you’re going to need to be a very good editor. With no direction, things can get weird quick: plot holes come up, character development gets changed mid-book, and the ending of your story can wind up somewhere entirely different than where you thought it would. 
Is there another option? Yes. Yes, there is. I’m one of those writers—you can be a hybrid. These writers know where the story is going to end, and the basics of what’s going to happen in each chapter, but they don’t exactly know how to get there. For me, when I make my chapter outlines, it looks a little like this:
Chapter 22: Margaret
Synopsis: Prince Gareth brags about his family’s power; Jerone returns home; Sorren announces the war is over 
These are the bare bones of what I want to happen in the chapter, but I have no idea how they’re going to come about. 

Structuring your plot

This might seem like we’re going over self-explanatory information, but without the building blocks of writing, any writer is doomed to fail. When it comes to structuring, there is no real breaking the mold and doing something new and fantastic. There are different ways to structure, but for the purposes of this blog, I’m going to stick with western story telling. 
Your book needs to have a beginning, middle, and end. These can also be called acts one, two, and three. This is nothing new, but it can be for writers just now starting on their journey to becoming an author. 
The beginning (Act I) is where you introduce your setting, your characters, and where your conflict is introduced. Usually, this is when your main character or protagonist (they aren’t always the same, by the way, but we’ll get into that next week), locks themselves into the story by making a goal or decision that pulls the rest of the characters toward the end goal.
The middle (Act II)  is a series of events and challenges that the main character faces to reach their goal that leads to the climax of the story. The challenge is making sure that you don’t end up with a lull working toward the climax. This should happen at the very end of Act II.
The end (Act III) is where your resolution will happen. The climax has come, everything’s gone to crap, and now your characters need to figure out how to meet their end goal. This is a little different for stories that have more than one book...sort of. Your book still needs to have three acts and still needs to have a resolution; it just won’t be the final resolution. There still needs to be at least one loose end that sets up the conflict for the next book.
How does your plot affect your characters?
What I mean to ask is, is your plot event-driven or character-driven?
A character-driven plot relies on the characters’ actions and emotions to move the plot along. This type of plot typically falls upon the villains of the story to work. They actively break rules, while the heroes of the story follow the rules and try to fix what the villain ruins/breaks.
An event-driven plot relies on external factors to create the plot. These type of plots work particularly well in historical fictions: for example, you could write a story about a Jewish family surviving the holocaust. These plots are initiated by something that is not a central character to the story. 

Does your plot make sense within your world?

This is where we get into the chicken and the egg conundrum. What really comes first? There are a lot of things that happen simultaneously, honestly. These steps don’t happen in isolation.  
While you’re figuring out your plot, you need to make sure that it fits within the world that you’re creating. You can’t very well have a story of the downtrodden rising up in a utopian world. Though, I suppose, you could if that utopia is made by slaves and only the rich get to enjoy the fruits of the oppressed, but I think you get my point. If there are no oppressed, there is no story within that world. 

Join me next week when I talk about characters

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Wednesday, February 5, 2020

New Authors: Getting Started

Knowing where to start is half the battle
Rebecca Mikkelson, CBD Authors 4 Authors Publishing
Welcome to our series for new authors! 
In the new year, we want to try to help writers who are just getting started on their journey to becoming authors. Sometimes it’s hard to know what you should start with or what might be missing from your work, so we’re going to cover the seven most important things when it comes to your story. Each subsequent blog post in this series is going to cover one of the following topics, but in this post, we want to give a brief overview of what’s to come so you can pick and choose which posts you’d like to read (though, hopefully, you’ll read all of them). This blog will be updated as posts go out so you can easily find them. 

Plot (Plot Makes the World Go ’Round)

One of the most important things in your work is going to be the plot. In this post, I’m going to be talking about where your story is going—before starting to write, you should already have an idea in mind of where you want the story to end. In that vein, I’ll also talk about what plotters and panters are, and how to structure your plot. 

Characters (A Character in Your Own Story)

Creating characters can be an interesting experience, especially when the characters start to get out of hand and do whatever they want. Before you get started, you’ll need to know the role you want your characters to play within the story, what their motivations are, a general idea of what they look like, their personalities, likes and dislikes, etc. to create a rich and vivid person your readers can relate to. 

Dialogue (Who Are You Talking To?)

Writing dialogue is hard—one of the hardest things, actually. You’re putting words into someone else’s mouth, with someone else’s personality, and selling it to readers as something a real person would say. And readers, my friend, are hard to please. In this post, I want to talk about what makes your dialogue believable, how your characters talk, and what your characters do while they’re talking (because that adds to the believability of their conviction or lack thereof).

Setting (Setting the Stage)

You might think this is the same thing as world building, and it sort of it, but the setting is more of the minute details within a story. I want to talk about the little things that writers often forget within their story because they’re writing the story as writers rather than readers. I’ll be talking about where your character is, keeping track of time, and how they interact with their environment. 

World Building (The World Revolves Around You)

You might have seen our eighteen-week series on world building last year, but in case you haven’t, you can find all of the posts here in our introductory post. For this post, however, I’m only going to be covering the top five things I think you need when just starting out on your world building journey. This post will cover what your world is, its customs, government, religion, and whether or not it has magic.

Themes (Theme it to me, Baby)

But my story doesn’t need a theme! I don’t want to teach people a lesson; I just want to tell a good story! People often mistake themes with morals when it comes to writing; while they do overlap, they are different things. In this post, I’ll talk about what themes are and how to enrich your story in subtle ways for your reader.

Conflict (I’m Feeling Conflicted)

Your conflict is what makes your story your story. Without it, the novel will be bland and lacking depth. Harsh to say it that way, perhaps, but true. In this blog post, I’ll talk about when your conflict should be introduced, how to make your conflict more believable, and how your conflict changes the life of your characters and story. 

Join me next week when I talk about plot. 

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