The note on my manuscript read: “You’re telling us about this. Show us.”
And I had no idea what that meant. I remember reading articles, asking questions, reading more. Rewriting–and rewriting again, only to have the next comment arrive. “This is very passive.”
In school, there were grammar rules. You know, things like subject-verb agreement, tenses, participles not to dangle, and infinitives you never split. Paragraphs have to have at least three sentences, and fragments are anathema. Oh, and whatever you do, make sure your writing is nice and varied with adjectives and adverbs in lovely complex sentences.
Then along comes the novel and “writing rules”.
You throw out the “never use fragments.” Fragments, properly used, give the story punch. Kill the adverbs–like all of them. If you must use one, save it for dialogue. All that flowery, passive writing that made those papers look so literary and learned? Kill every last one of those sentences. Oh, and whatever you do, show. Don’t tell.
All those grammar rules you learned get turned up on their heads once you slip from high school or college writing and into creative writing. You get new rules. Writing rules. I learned quickly (but not thoroughly, obviously), to avoid those pesky adverbs. I learned how to kill the info dump. You really didn’t need to know about her eighth-grade humiliation at camp. Why their family moved to the area in the 1700’s is usually irrelevant. And if it is relevant, at least you can weave it into the story in a careful, natural way.
And life is grand–until you get your manuscript back from your editor with red boxes around huge sections that say, “Show me this” or “You’re telling again.” Then you want to throw the laptop and question why you ever thought you could write anything. Sprinkle in a few “non-parallel phrases” and you’ve got the gist of my first half dozen manuscripts.
But I’m a fast learner.
And after writing over sixty books, I’ve learned a thing or twenty. And one of the things I’ve learned is that the evil passive writing (or at least an impostor masquerading as it) and telling are almost inextricably linked! Know what that means? If you kill one, you’ve likely killed the other in one fell schwoop! WOOT!
Oh, and there’s an exception to everything.
How about you? What thing did you learn in school that you suspect doesn’t translate well to a novel?
Leave a Reply