This month, I’m participating in an editing/writing book club with some friends, and we’re reading Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself into Print by Renni Browne and Dave King.
Renni Browne used to be in traditional publishing but left in the 1980s to start The Editorial Department, which is a national book-editing company. Dave King is a contributing editor at Writer’s Digest, so I’m getting some pretty fantastic advice right now. You could be too. Oh wait, you are!
At first I thought SEFW was going to be one of those books that was all advice and no application. As an editor myself, I find that a lot of my job is teaching authors through my own examples, so I need as much practice writing good prose as I can get. But I was totally wrong about SEFW. It does have excellent application. At the end of each chapter is an “Exercise” and “Checklist” section, where you have to take what you’ve learned in the chapter and write some excerpts to show what you know. In addition, it directs you to check any other prose you’ve written for the problems described in the chapter.
This whole “exercise” thing intrigued me, so I thought I would share with you, readers and friends, what I’m learning by putting my homework on the blog. So here we go:
This first chapter of SEFW covers one of my personal pet peeves: Showing vs. Telling. When I was editing full time, this was almost always one of several edits I would give my authors. It’s hard to notice that you’re doing it when you’re writing, but as a reader/editor, it’s painfully obvious when an author drifts from a scene with lots of action to an incredibly slow-moving soliloquy of narrative summary.
Let’s define some terms: action and narrative summary. Action does not necessarily mean someone being chased, blown up, murdered, swatted, or generally bandied about. Action simply means that there is a location, there are characters who are interacting, and there is probably some dialogue. Therefore, a scene where a group of friends are hanging out and chatting over froyo would be considered an action scene. That’s the real secret: if there is interaction, it’s an action scene. Wala. It’s also showing the reader what’s happening through a combination of location and dialogue.
Now, narrative summary is a different beast. It summarizes what happens in any kind of scene. It’s typically used to relay historical information, back story, a description, or any explanation that needs to be made to the reader. It’s a slow scene. It’s also telling the reader what’s happening solely through descriptive language. There’s no dialogue in a narrative summary.
The real trick is balancing the amount of action and narrative summary scenes you have, because the problem comes when an author/writer gets tired of writing the action (because it’s harder) and slips into narrative summary. At that point, the action and narrative summary have blended into one, and that’s never good.
Here’s an example of telling from SEFW:
“The conversation was barely begun before I discovered that our host was more than simply a stranger to most of his guests. He was an enigma, a mystery. And this was a crowd that doted on mysteries. In the space of no more than five minutes, I heard several different people put forth their theories–all equally probably or preposterous–as to who and what he was. Each theory was argued with the conviction that can only come from a lack of evidence, and it seemed, that, for many of the guests, these arguments were the main reason to attend his parties” (SEFW, pg.5).
There’s nothing really wrong with this paragraph grammatically, but it’s talking about a mystery person at a party, for crying out loud. Shouldn’t it be a bit more spicy? I think so. Guess what book this narrative summary is from? The Great Gatsby. If the whole book were written like that paragraph above, it probably wouldn’t be remembered as the iconic piece of literature that it is today. That’s why showing vs. telling is so important!
HOMEWORK: So here’s my assignment. Take the following bit of narrative summary and convert it into a scene.
“Once you got off Route 9W, though, you were in another world, a world where two streets never met at a right angle, where streets, in fact, didn’t exist. Instead you had “courts,” terraces,” “ways,” a “landing” or two. And lining these street-like things were row on row of little houses that could be distinguished, it seemed, only by the lawn ornaments. Travelers who disappeared into the developments had been known to call taxis just to lead them out again.”
Here’s my version, complete with visual:
“Didn’t we just past Tailor Terrace?” she said with her head out the window.
“No, that was Tinker Terrace,” I answered. I held the wheel with one hand while I checked my phone’s supposedly “user-friendly” directions.
“Well, I’m pretty sure we came this way about five minutes ago. We’re going in circles, aren’t we?”
“Google says we’re supposed to hang a left on Soldier Way after the roundabout, but this stupid development doesn’t have a grid system…I can’t even figure out how to get back where we started!” I shook my phone in frustration, willing the GPS to find us inside this pastel-colored cookie cutter McMansionville.
“Ohmigod, Quentin, look where you’re going!”
I jerked my head up to see that I was headed toward the curb of a lawn that sported more than its fair share of lawn ornaments. I caught sight of an old dwarf with a blue hat and a chipped nose as he flew over the hood of the car.
“Quentin! You’re killing the locals!” Norah said and laughed.
I dropped my phone somewhere in the floor of the car and smashed on the brakes. Norah’s seat belt snapped her back into the seat. Once we stopped, I jumped out of the car to assess my victim. He rested on his back a few feet behind us. I bent to examine him.
“Relax, Norah, the little guy’s face is already chipped. I’ll just put it back where I found it. It’s not like his owner is going to even notice anyway. There are like a hundred of these guys on every street! It’s like everyone in the neighborhood went to Lowe’s and bought out the home and garden department.”
I held chip-face in one hand while I shielded my eyes from the sun to look into the yard I’d just invaded. It was home to flamingos, stone lions, more gnomes like chip-face, a tree with stones smashed into its bark to look like a face, and a frozen-in-midstride deer.
“I’ll just, uh, put this little guy back where he came from.”
“And where was that, exactly, Quentin?” Norah asked, gesturing to the lack of yard space and overabundance of lawn ornaments.
The screen door to the house I stood in front of banged open just ten yards from where I stood. The sun was in my eyes, so I couldn’t see what was coming. Now, I can only rely on Norah’s version of what happened to tell you this, because she was closer to her when the old lady started talking and could possibly have read her lips. Norah claims she said, “What are you doing with Buttercup!? Oh mylanta, did you break his NOSE? You’re going to pay for that, young man!”
But with the cigarette in her mouth, it sounded to me like she said, “Where doin’ Buddercuh!? Oh, Miranda, djoo burk his nose? You’re goin’ paydat, youngin’!”
I stood there with my mouth partially open. Did she just call me Miranda? I looked down at chip-face. I distinctly remember his face already being broken, I thought. I looked up in confusion to find a partially robed, very cranky woman with curlers in her hair and a cigarette hanging out of her mouth who was closing the gap between us at an alarming rate.
“QUENTIN, drop the gnome, and get us out of here!” Norah yelled from the front seat.
I obediently dropped the gnome into the grass, so as not to further destroy his gorgeous visage, and ran for the driver’s side door.
The cigarette danced in the woman’s mouth as she flailed her arms at us and chased me toward my car. “Y’all go on, git! Destroyin’ my proptry! Oh, Buddercuh, mah prized p’session!” She fell to her knees as her tears bathed the beloved gnome’s face.
I slammed the gear shift to first and tried to peel out of there.
“Find a way to get us out of this neighborhood NOW!” Norah clenched her fists on her lap and stared toward the open road, rife with lawn gnomes and angry neighbors who were now sticking their heads out of windows and doors to find out what the ruckus was. I finally spied our exit a few houses down the road and made a beeline. As we pulled out onto the main avenue, I breathed a sigh of relief. Then I checked the rearview mirror: Buttercup sat in my backseat, buckled in…