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JPC Allen Writes

Inspiration for Beginning Writers

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Show Don’t Tell

Writing Tip — Favorite Books and Giveaway: “The Emotion Thesaurus”

Emotion-Thesaurus-2nd-EditionI can’t remember how I found The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi, but it was one of the best books I’ve bought on writing technique. It’s so good that everyone who comments during the month of May will be put in a drawing for it. To enter the drawing, you must be a U.S. resident You can comment from now until May 31 at 5 p.m. EST. I will notify the winner that day.

When my freelance editor Sharyn Kopf tackled my YA novel, The Truth and Other Strangers, she pointed out that I used the same facial expressions to convey emotions, usually smiles, grins, and the width of the eyes. So I had to figure out how to describe emotions in a variety of ways.

The Emotion Thesaurus offers loads of descriptions for 130 emotions. Under each one is a definition, a list of physical signs, internal sensations, mental responses, cues of an acute case of this emotion, and cues of suppressing it, along with a writer’s tip.

Whenever I see that I am falling into the trap of relying too heavily on my character’s grins or narrowed eyes, I pick up the thesaurus. Reading the list of physical signs lifts my imagination out of its rut. Sometimes, I don’t use the exact sign the authors have listed, but the signs have sparked my creativity, and I come up with one of my own.

For example, when my main character experiences fear, I often use shortness of breath or a sick stomach. The thesaurus suggests such reactions as “lowering voice to a whisper”, “pleading, talking to oneself.”, and “stiff walking, the knees locking” among 33 physical signs. For the main character of my recent mystery short story, I decided when she was scared that she would raise up on her toes, digging in like a sprinter, to be ready to run.

These authors have other writing thesaurus, which I have not read, but I’m intrigued by The Rural Setting Thesaurus. Although I live in the country, I know I can use someone else’s perspective to see a familiar setting with new eyes.

Be sure to comment during May and to be eligible to win The Emotion Thesaurus

 

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Writing Tip — Immerse Your Readers in Deep POV

swimmingw1-2616746_1280The one piece of writing advice I have run into more than any other is “show, don’t tell”. It wasn’t until I read two books on the subject, Understanding Show Don’t Tell by Janice Hardy and Rivet Your Readers With Deep Point of View by Jill Elizabeth Nelson, that I understood that when you immerse your readers in deep POV, you guard against telling and are more likely to show.

I put this into practice for the first time last January when I wrote the rough draft of my short story, “Debt to Pay”, which will appear in the anthology From the Lake to the River. To achieve deep POV, I had to imagine my entire story through the senses of my first person narrator, sixteen-year-old Jay. It was as if my rural setting in Wayne National Forest was a world in Minecraft, and Jay was my avatar.

What amazed me was how thoroughly I experienced Jay’s environment through this technique. I saw the world through his eyes, heard it through his ears. When I finished writing the action sequence at the climax, I was breathing hard, and my heart was racing. Deep POV made my imagination come alive and I hope I have transferred the vividness into words.

The disadvantage with deep POV is that it can confuse your readers. I discovered that when I asked relatives and friends to read my rough draft. In general, they thought the story made sense, but they became confused during the action at the end. I had captured the chaos Jay experiences so well that my readers found it chaotic, too. As fellow writers Cindy Thomson and Michelle Levigne told me, sometimes a writer needs to insert tiny tells to help the reader. Your reader shouldn’t work hard to follow your story. I know when I have to deeply concentrate to figure out a plot, I may just give up.

So I returned to my rough draft and inserted tells to help the readers follow the action. But I had to make the tells seems natural for Jay to think since I was still using deep POV.

How do you get into the mind of your POV characters?

Writing Tip — Show, Don’t Tell

The two books shown above helped me tremendously in understanding “show, don’t tell”. They are easy to read, not expensive, and give detailed explanations about what “telling” prose is versus “showing” prose.

Understanding Show, Don’t Tell

Janice Hardy’s book is the longer of the two, and the one I read first. Author and agent Tess Emily Hall recommended it. Ms. Hard cover many topics that come under “telling” prose — point of view (POV), narrative distance, backstory, info dump, and more.

What I found most helpful were lists of words that usually indicate a writer is engaging in “telling”. An appendix conveniently gathers all these word together.

Her chapter “Things That Affect Telling” takes the same paragraph and rewrites it in “showing” prose from first-person POV, third-person single POV, and third-person omniscient POV. She dissects the differences in the writing styles, and that kind of examination is what I really needed.

Rivet Your Readers With Deep Point of View

Sharyn Kopf, an author and freelance editor who is working on my novel, recommended this book. It covers a lot of the same ground as Understanding but includes worksheets at the end of each chapter with sample answers.

I found the chapter “Write Lively, Linear Prose” to be the most helpful. Sometimes, because writers know how all the action is going to end, they write it in the wrong order.

An example from Rivet:

“The hot, stuffy air caused my head to spin.”

If I was writing in deep POV, showing, not telling, I would describe first the character noticing something wrong with his head, then have the character pinpoint the cause. I am paying close attention to the order of my action, so I don’t put the cart before the horse.

What sources have you found that teach “show, don’t tell”?

Writing Tip — Show, Don’t Tell

narrativew-794978_1280If you’ve been writing for more than a week, I’m sure you’ve heard or read the advice “show, don’t tell”. I’d heard it so much, it had lost almost any meaning. I only understood it to mean “be descriptive”. But at the Ohio Christian Writers Conference in Cincinnati, I learned what agents and publishers actually expect.

In her session on the subject, Tessa Emily Hall said that “show, don’t tell” means I can only write what the point-of-view (POV ) character experiences or thinks in that precise instance in the story. I call it virtual-reality POV. The writer is limited to what the POV character can take in through his or her senses and his or her knowledge and thoughts at the “present” moment.

If you write in first-person POV or third-person POV from a single character per chapter, this concept makes sense. If you use third POV, omniscient, I am not sure how this works.

Once I grasped the concept, I realized why it has been so hard for me to master.

The Friendly Narrator

My favorite stories, from Dr. Watson to Ponyboy Curtis in The Outsiders are told in first-person POV, but the story is related as a past event.

For example, Dr. Watson often begins a story by describing how he’s been reviewing his notes of his recent adventures with Sherlock Holmes and has decided to describe in detail this particular tale.

Readers discover at the end of The Outsiders that the novel is Ponyboy’s English assignment, so he comments on the story with hindsight. Archie Goodwin often finishes a Nero Wolfe story by stating that a few days ago, the verdict came in on the case they solved.

This style makes me feel like the narrator is a friend I am sitting down with for a private chat. I also love how the style lets the narrator directly address the reader.

From Plot It Yourself by Rex Stout: 

Nero Wolfe is investigating cases of plagiarism and realizes all three cases are the work of one person because of how the copycat uses paragraphs. His right-hand man Archie Goodwin says, at the end of a long paragraph: “The next sentence is to be, ‘But the table-load of paper, being in the office, was clearly up to me,’ and I have to decide whether to put it here or start a new paragraph with it. You see how subtle it is. Paragraph it yourself.”

From The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton:

Ponyboy Curtis, who is called a greaser because he lives on the wrong side of the tracks, says, “Incidentally, we don’t mind being called greaser by another greaser. It’s kind of playful then.”

From “The Killer Christian” by Andrew Klavan:

“If ever you see a man put his fingers in his ears and whistle Dixie to keep from hearing the truth, you may assume he’s a fool, but if he put his fingers in your ears and starts whistling, then you know you are dealing with a journalist.”

This was the style I was using in my novel. My main character Junior was telling the story as if it was something that happened in the recent past. Writers can still use this style — Mr. Klavan wrote his story in 2007 — but in YA, it seems like not only are more stories written in first-person POV, but also in present tense. You can’t get more immediate and in the moment than that.

So I have been reviewing my manuscript under a microscope, seeing if I can master this technique. In my next tip, I’ll recommend two books that have helped me understand all the intricacies of”show, don’t tell.”

Writing Tip — Writing Doubts

pencil?-918449_1280This post has been almost four months in the making, and now I think is the right time to publish it because I finally have a conclusion.

In September, I went to the American Christian Fiction Writers conference in Dallas with high hopes. I had spend the past year building my platform and revising my YA novel with the help of a freelance editor. When an agent wanted to take my business plan and first three chapter, my confidence soared.

Four days later, the agent e-mailed me, stating my writing had problems, mainly in the area of “show, don’t tell”. I couldn’t understand it. My editor had pointed out those areas, and I thought I had fixed them.

The next few weeks, my mind was a tornado of questions and doubts. Maybe I just wasn’t good enough to be a published writer. Maybe I should just write for my own enjoyment. Perhaps I was too old to master a new writing style. To say I was depressed is like saying the Arctic is brisk.

And then I noticed something. Even while I was questing my talent as a writer, I was still thinking like one. I’d see an unusual sunset and file it away until I could find story to accompany it. Someone would make a joke, and I would wonder which of my characters to give it to.

I finally realized that regardless of whether I ever got published, I was a writer. I enjoyed  the art too much, and my brain seemed designed for it. I had to be a writer. God made me that way.

writer-605764_1280Six weeks after the conference in Dallas, I went to one in Cincinnati. I was in no mood to go, but since I had already paid, I went.

Sponsored by Serious Writer Academy, it was the best writing conference I ever attended. Since it was small, I had many opportunities to take to attendees and instructors. Author and agent Tessa Emily Hall taught a class on “show, don’t tell”, and I finally figured out what I was doing wrong. Now I had to figure out if I could actually implement what I had learned.

In my next post, I will discuss what I discovered was my key to understanding “show, don’t tell”.

 

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