Friday, January 24, 2014

A Hissy Fit about Writing Advice

I was across the table from a man with patchy blue hair, a ring in his nose, and a Hello Kitty backpack. He handed me my manuscript and shrugged with dismay, “I just haven’t seen it done that way before.”

You don’t expect it to come from the people it does; those literary buffs who love Beckett and Gertrude Stein, the ones who praise The Death of a Salesman’s flagrant breaking of rules to write about a low-class civilian, the people actively trying to be weird in their everyday life, the writers who turned to world-building because they didn’t fit in with reality. Among these people is where I’ve found the greatest eagerness to say, “You’re not doing it how it should be done.”

Which makes sense. Projection is the author’s irritating enemy. No one can spot weirdness for weirdness’s sake like the person whose made a living out of it.

That all being said, I am sick of the literary philosophy that authors are children who need to be told “No,” instead of being encouraged to take risks.

Yesterday I read an article about a subject I hadn’t come across before, “Physical Telling: Action Speaks Louder than Body Parts!” I was excited because usually I get to read blogs going on and on about “read a lot.” Someone had finally thought of a different solution to amping up variation in a story.

Nope. It was just about limiting it again—another version of “Show, don’t tell.”

I’m a little ticked, mostly because I was looking forward to a new idea, which I didn’t get. But partially because the author of the blog is developing her own pet peeve rather than pointing out a solution to a typical problem.

Which brings me to my first issue:

She doesn’t talk about the problem.

Answers to nonexistent evils are a waste of time. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Having variation is important to me, and lacking variation is a problem, but when people get stuck on one nuance (don’t use adverbs, don’t use said, don’t describe emotions), they don’t see others, or even the big picture for that matter. This is why when someone gives you the riot act for not abiding by the rules, they rarely discuss anything more than the rules, not going into contextual advice or their own opinions in their own words.

The author of the blog says, “Once you learn to spot them, they pop off the page like a zit on a beauty queen.

That’s true for everything. If I pour out a bag of buttons and tell you to count the red ones, the red ones are going to pop out. If I tell you to count black, the black will pop out. Not only that, but after you are done, you are less likely to remember what other colors were in the pile than if I had asked you to count all of them.

If I tell you to look for something, that’s what you’re going to see. That’s how looking works.

Right now, she’s looking for red, and that’s as far as her mind goes. The only real issue she’s talking about here is that talking about body parts (His eyes narrowed, his stomach clenched, etc.) is overdone. I agree that’s a problem. I agree there are books if explained how the male love-interest makes the female’s stomach flip one more time, the book’s going into the toilet. But, in the honored tradition of writing advice, instead of expressing the truth (it’s wrong because it’s overdone), she states it with the tactic of the elementary school teacher. Don’t do it because I said not to. We tell kids not to talk to strangers because it’s easier to make an all-encompassing rule than to explain to them the variance in context—when it’s okay to talk to this stranger and when this one should send you running.

Tell me the circumstance, not the rule. Discuss the problem and, by all means, give me a solution to it. But recognize the magnitude and the consistency of the solution; treating it like it’s absolutely true and extremely important supersedes the actual truth of it.

She’s ignoring the effect of the decision.

When I hear people limiting others, they act like their advice is going to wildly alter the book, but then don’t believe that leaving it as is might have an effect too.

“If you delete this word, your writing will be so much improved.”

“Yeah, but if I change it, it will be way different than what I was going for.”

“It’s just one word!”

Her examples establish well the difference between describing body parts and actions, but not to her benefit.

For example:

Dolores insisted that Alaska and I share the bed, and she slept on the pull-out while the Colonel was out in his tent. I worried he would get cold, but frankly I wasn’t about to give up my bed with Alaska. We had separate blankets, and there were never fewer than three layers between us, but the possibilities kept me up half the night.

This is a love story that she claims is a good example for not going into detail about how his “heart was racing and his breath was rapid,” but I would say this doesn’t convince me. For one thing, before I read her explanation, my thought process went like this: “Alaska is a love-interest. No. She’s a dog. No, she’s a little girl. No. She’s a love-interest.”

Now, of course part of the problem is I don’t know the story. I think when I heard the third character was a boy, I believed that ‘I’ was a woman, because I had a hard time in that split second picturing a man giving a bed up to another man.

I am not criticizing the author of the story here; I’m positive these are not thoughts I’d have reading the story. But as an example of an emotional connection between reader and character, as something with atmosphere created by action, it’s not a good one.  There is no sexy, sensuality. I doubt the story was supposed to be that way. Yet, I would argue that talking about his skin tingling, the way his body ached to touch her, would give more of a mood.

If the story is ‘improved’ by talking in action instead of emotion, then it is also changed. If we think of it as change and not just “harder is better, showing is better, shorter is better—because I said so,” then it makes sense why one choice would be a good decision in one context, the other would be best in another. This paragraph works, but not as a replacement for what the protagonist is feeling.

Her example isn’t an example of what she suggesting.

Not only is the excerpt not a moment of high emotional intensity (at least not out of context), it’s not even showing. It’s just another form of telling. The information delivered, especially the part that confirmed that Alaska probably isn’t a dog, were all internalized thoughts.

We know Dolores is on the pullout, they’re sleeping on a bed and that they had separate blankets. Those are the only two concrete images in the paragraph. The Colonel being in his tent might be another, but I call that being “off screen” (not something the reader pictures). The rest was more important, and more interesting, but they were feelings, not feelings conveyed by action. “I wasn’t about to give up my bed with Alaska,” is the most romantic thing in the scene. It’s a thought, not an image, and so is “the possibilities.” What does a possibility look like? It looks like nothing—which is the point. The reason he internalizes “the possibilities” rather than showing us “I”s actions is Alaska can’t be an idiot and she’s not supposed to know. You give the audience something in action, you need to find reasons why the other characters don’t understand too.

I once had “show, don’t tell,” described to me as “telling it in real time.” I like that a lot, because it tends to be consistent. This paragraph is abstract, partially because it’s not told in real time. First it discusses what had happened. (Like the Colonel being off-screen, I didn’t picture Dolores’s insisting, or when they started to share the bed, I pictured them as already sharing the bed, and the narrator is informing me as to why.) Then it speeds through “half the night.”

This not a problem for me in the context of the excerpt, but as an example it is completely against her point. She calls him a master for not falling back on the “easy” terms, but, from my perception, he just didn’t do what she personally had a problem with. And so the issue of the pet peeve; she’s looking for “emotional descriptions” so hard that she’s not looking at what’s actually going on. This is a huge problem for the author because you can’t fix everyone’s issues, and they will get stuck on them. While I’m not criticizing the writing, there was nothing spectacular about this specific example, nothing that made me go, “Wow, I want to write like that.” The only thing “impressive” is “he didn’t fall back on the obvious reaction Miles would be having sleeping next to the girl he loves and can’t have.” No, you’re right. He didn’t. But what did he do?

It’s like when my friend bragged about her new boyfriend being great because he didn’t scream at her when she was late. Yes, that’s a good thing, but his lack of doing it doesn’t mean that he’s great. He might be, but you’re going to have to talk about the beneficial things if you want to convince me.

She doesn’t talk about what the ramifications are.

You should write something that only shows. You should write something with zero clich├ęs. I’m serious. Write something that abides fully by these common rules (I would recommend a short story for your sanity’s sake), and then give it to someone to critique. You will suddenly be aware of just how much balking people can do at anything.

Let’s take her second sample into consideration.

“Yeah, well. If you’re staying here in hopes of making out with Alaska, I sure wish you wouldn’t. If you unmoor her from the rock that is Jake, God have mercy on us all. That would be some drama, indeed. And as a rule, I like to avoid drama.”

“It’s not because I want to make out with her.”

“Hold on.” He grabbed a pencil and scrawled excitedly at the paper as if he’d just made a mathematical breakthrough and then looked back up at me. “I just did some calculations, and I’ve been able to determine that you’re full of shit.”

Alright, I can see how this is action. I can also see why the last line is more interesting than “He narrowed his eyes.”

But it’s still not a good example for her point. Why do I think so?

Let’s just start with the fact that “grabbing a piece of paper” doesn’t say he’s suspicious as much as when he says, “You’re full of shit.” This is not an action that delivers information, but sets up an interesting way to say it. Telling people things through dialogue is great, but I would say that depending on dialogue to explain their actions isn’t indicative of an informative action.

But more importantly, we don’t need to be told he doesn’t believe her. The audience assumes he wouldn’t. The last line in this scene adds something because it’s funny. If it was just, “He narrowed his eyes,” the point of the sentence would have been only to tell me he doesn’t believe him, which I would have already assumed.

Not that any of that bothers me. I wouldn’t even take issue to, “He didn’t believe me.” Because as long as you don’t leave me in the void world for too long, and give me enough details along the way, I can put two-and-two together, using this wonderful thing called my imagination. Sure, the more details the better, but that doesn’t mean it’s always the best option. I don’t need to be told what not believing looks like, and (while still remembering that variation is important) I don’t care. Depending on me to constantly fill in the blanks is stupid, but never letting me is equally as ineffective.

Showing has a higher propensity to be confusing. It really works when showing something the audience would assume. It’s far less annoying than to be told something you’d already figured out. The problem is when the author wants to deliver new or unexpected information.

Let’s say that “He” does believe Miles claim, “I don’t want to make out with her.” How do we convey that? Can’t talk about his facial expression (despite that being Miles’s first clue), so what would he do? Am I limited to using no body parts or can I say, “He put his fist on his mouth and hummed?” Can I talk about where he’s looking? Does “action” mean that as long as he interacts with something, it counts? “The floor creaked as he shifted in silence”? She’s not clear enough about applying her advice, mostly because her argument is “it’s overdone.” Well, what’s over done? If you had told me the problem, I’d be better equipped to understanding when I’m talking body parts versus action.

But let’s pretend for a moment that I’m not an idiot (as much fun as it is) and I use her advice as intended—with a grain of salt and am really trying to get to the heart of what she’s saying. I want to tell the audience that he believes Miles without outright saying he believes him. Even if I do use facial expressions, I still need to contradict the audience’s assumption (the bane of the author’s existence), which means I have to be very thorough, very specific, or they’ll hear what they want to hear/feel like they missed something.

When I wrote a scene that delivered information primarily by action with few internal thoughts or explanations, the reactions I kept getting was, “I’m confused.” When I asked them to go into detail, they’d say, “Well, are you saying that he likes her?”

“Yes.”

“Oh.”

Any time I gave new information, introducing a fictional object, a character’s mood or feelings towards another character, or an element of the world that was the first time they were hearing it, I found my audience knew exactly what it was, but felt they didn’t. They could never pinpoint what they didn’t understand, and I finally figured out that the potential to have misinterpreted it will stop a lot of readers short.

For one thing, no one knows where their assumptions came from, and when you contradict them through showing, they might think it’s because you misled them from something said earlier, or worse, you’re not doing a good job at showing them what they’re supposed to be seeing. This means that when you show them something well, (he believes him) but they don’t think that’s what you’re showing them (they think he doesn’t believe him), they might accuse you of showing them something poorly (that’s not how you would act if you don’t believe someone!)

But the problem is few people, when giving feedback, will be that straightforward. Someone says to you, “What are you trying to say here? Why don’t you just say that?” It often sound like they’re telling you to tell. Which they might be. Or it might be that they’re just impatient and want the answer right now, or it might be that they’re really lost as to what’s going on, or that they feel like they’re missing important information that isn’t important at all, or they simply didn’t understand the information you were trying to convey. Each of which have different solutions, sometimes it being ignore them. When you spend a lot of effort showing something, people will complain about not having any confirmation. Sometimes the author should listen to them, sometimes he shouldn’t, and it’s very hard to tell the difference. Which is why it is important to mention the ramifications of “showing.” Knowing what will happen when you succeeded at what you’re trying to do will help you not freak out when you know have to face the costs of that choice.

Every piece of advice has a consequence, and when someone doesn’t mention that consequence, it makes me suspicious as the whether or not they’ve tried it at all.


There’s a reason not everyone is doing it the way everyone advises. Not just because it’s harder—though that’s a part of it. Showing doesn’t work all the time, the harder way isn’t necessarily the more effective way, and context is important. If you’re arguing for variation, doing a 180 isn’t the best way to achieve it. Not all authors write the same, not all of them want to write the same, and what bothers you doesn’t necessarily bother other people. Focus on the results of the action, not the action itself and your arguments wouldn’t be so contingent on having a friendly audience. Don’t tell me to do something when you don’t fully understand what it is you’re asking me to do.