October 23, 2007

Showing vs. Telling, Process & Meaning

When I have a bit of story being looked over by my stalwart writing group, I at times have a rare "Aha!" moment that I am spending a lot of my time explaining my plot to my compatriots. That's a key moment for me to realize that obviously I didn't write what I meant.

Though I hate it when my editor says it, the Show-Don't-Tell school of writing rules state that you allow readers to see what you have to say, and gather meaning from the array of options you've given them. In this way, the reading is interactive, and the reader brings something to the book. If you don't allow your readers this connection, you've generally written a very predictable, dull book that will be put down halfway through the first chapter because credible storylines don't spring to life just because the narrator tells us they're credible. Our intellect has to engage and convince us to suspend our disbelief, and enter into the plot.

Which brings me to my picture, taken the first week I was in the UK. I took this with my camera phone, standing on an island in the middle of the street. "Oh, look," I gushed. "A little book maker. Is that how they do independent press here? I wonder if they print poetry chapbooks." Snap.

Um, no. Bookmaking: as in gambling. Welcome, oh, wet-behind-the-ears-one, to the UK...

I don't know what the moral of my story is except that what works in writing (hey - I was extrapolating meaning, here!) doesn't always work in life.

Jules posed a "brief and burning question" to writers about the nature of process. Does it exist? Apparently, Rosemary Wells says that any good writer will tell you that process doesn't exist.

This strikes me as a little funny because when I was speaking to undergraduates at my alma mater, my professor asked me to talk to the students about process. Swaggering fresh from my... um, folly? after my first publication, I said confidently (disingenuously!)that really, process didn't exist. That I didn't write everyday. That I didn't do all of the proscribed things that other authors did. And look! I sold stuff! Wasn't I smart? Sadly, no. I was delusional, and I wanted everyone to believe I was brilliant, and I was terrified -- and quite sure -- that I was not.

Fact: There is not ONE process that exists that everyone has to use -- we know that from listening to the way Tamora Pierce says she worked, or Walter Dean Meyers said he worked this summer at the SCBWI L.A. Conference. I couldn't work the way either one of them works, but the way I work... works for me. Therefore: there IS such a thing as process. But it changes daily, and it differs wildly. And when you add a readers, in the form of a writing group and/or an editor, it shifts again. Your process has to work for you for the particular piece you're working on, the particular tone you're going for, etc. etc. etc. -- or it's worthless. And you cannot hold onto a process that is a tried-and-true work of art for Mr. Meyers or Lady Pierce, or Our Jane or anybody else -- your process has to be for you, and it's not something to shine up and show off. It's a work thing, a work ethic, and it's kind of ...personal.

Those are my £.02 centavos.

Speaking of Our Jane (and also thanks to Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast for this), she's chatting with Anne Levy at BookBuds about judging a contest where kids write their own alphabet books (take THAT Steve Martin). Go ye.

The Cybils nominations continue (and if you haven't dropped by to nominate a single book in each category, what's stopping you?). I'm looking forward to reading Extras, the newest Scott Westerfeld. Via Original Content, I've discovered a great piece on Westerfeld, and on the dystopian novel plot being increasingly accepted as upcoming reality. Teens interviewed remark on the artificiality and surreality of the society in which they live, and discuss the rise of the famous-for-being-famous tribe. Some interesting stuff.

Today's writing thought, sent to me by my thoughtful friend, L.:

"I have found that I'm not as good as I thought or as bad as I feared. I am not heroine or villain. I am living with my actual self and seeing what that is. Neither idealizing nor being idealized. It is more painful than I had imagined.

Also more dimensional. I find myself stumbling hand in hand with forgiveness as a much closer entity."
- Sark

Usually I find Sark pretty (painfully) airy, but this quote really brings home to me how writing - for any age group - has to be done from a place of honest and feet-on-the-ground centeredness. Good luck with that today...


Saints and Spinners said...

Oh, how disappointing to find out that the bookmaking shop was not a small press. I remember seeing my first "Nails" shop and thinking that it was a little speciality hardware store.

I haven't yet commented on 7Imp today, but I don't understand what Rosemary Wells means with "process doesn't exist." Is that like saying "Thinking doesn't exist" or "rough drafts don't exist?"

tanita✿davis said...

Alkelda, it feels good to have had some company in the Wet-Behind-the-Ears woodshed in which we were apparently raised.

Um... I'm really not sure what Rosemary Wells was saying, there. I think she was ...uh, kidding.

Robin Brande said...

TadMack, re: everything you said about process:



Yes, indeed, I agree.

Which makes us both smart, right?

Deb Cushman said...

I'm afraid I would have thought I'd found a small press as well. Maybe just wishful thinking?

I work with students at a school for the arts. Our unofficial motto is "It's not the product, it's the process." So, I sure hope that process exists, or we're going to have to recall all of those diplomas! :)

Anonymous said...

"It's not something to shine or show off." I love that. 'Cause really, work ethic is kinda gritty and dirty and definately unshined. But every so often you stumble on treasure. Shiny, shiny treasure. Right?

tanita✿davis said...

I'm so glad other people would have thought it was a small press, too!!

If there is no process, there is no ...product, no end result. There is no gold without the digging in the dirt to unearth it... shiny treasure indeed!

Mary Witzl said...

One of my favorite quotes is "Back when I was young and knew everything..." That just says it all, though my kids don't find it the least bit funny.

When I was studying art, the process was all-important and rated higher than the product. The idea being that once you'd worked out the former, you could almost always churn out the latter.

I thought a bookmaker's shop was just what you thought it was, T. And have you heard of an ironmonger's yet? That's a blacksmith. And a surgery is a doctor's medical practice -- or a meeting to discuss civic issues. Honest!

Vivian Mahoney said...

That is one great quote. Thanks, I needed to read that.