Writing While Writing – Round 2

So it turns out that writing about writing while I’m writing is actually really helpful. And also makes sense, given the premise of this blog, which is to write about writing. There’s no substitute for immediacy, folks.

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Speaking of which: ‘show don’t tell’ rule being violated in the very first line of the chapter. But I have to say, I don’t really like the idea of this rule being, well, a rule. Some of the best lines from literature are nothing but telling, and that’s because showing, while direct, is also interpretative. You can say ‘she bit her lip’ instead of ‘she started to feel nervous’ and let the context fill in the gaps, and it’s great for drawing a reader into the action and letting them really get stuck in and invest themselves in what’s going on; showing is great for characters, because it makes them feel like a subject, as opposed to telling, which treats characters like objects – fairytales, for instance, use a very objective, telling voice, because they’re morality tales – the characters aren’t important on their own merits, only insofar as they provide a mechanical function for distributing specific information to the audience. Also probably why they aren’t that complex. But you couldn’t achieve that sense of distance through showing, which is why telling is sometimes important – while telling rather than showing can sometimes come off as patronising to the reader, as if the writer assumes they’re idiots, sometimes you want to make the audience feel removed, such as if you have something to say that can’t be said through the characters, or would seem contrived. Tolkien did a lot of telling, for instance, and if he hadn’t then we wouldn’t have the knowledge of Middle-Earth that we do.

I’m torn when it comes to internal things, though. Thoughts and feelings can be so abstract and complicated and specific that without telling it can be almost impossible to convey anything at all, not to mention that we tend to think in words, in telling terms, and some feelings are only elicited through language. And then I find it really hard to even tell if something is telling or showing. For instance: ‘Why couldn’t she feel hungry?’ or ‘She had never seen him look so tired’ very obviously convey emotions and engender a direct link with the character’s subjectivity, but I’d say that it’s telling rather than showing. I think. Is it only telling when it feels objective? So even though this sounds and looks like telling, is it actually showing? I guess I’ll actually go with ‘showing’, because it’s not ‘she felt x’ or something, but still. It’s tricky. And I suppose it also may not feel subjective or direct for other people at all.

Then there are times where thoughts and feelings are very obviously being told rather than shown, and it makes it feel like the character isn’t really involved in the process of thinking or feeling, making it very alienating. What snippets I’ve read of Shop Girl feel that way; there’s some beautiful prose, but it all seems to be telling. (Which I take issue with on a political level as well as because I’m a writer, as a lot of male authors tend to ‘tell’ their female characters but ‘show’ their male ones, and as such their male characters seem much more realistic than their female counterparts.)

The times where telling can feel subjective that I’ve come across (and can remember) are making metaphors or analogies, and while using a first-person POV. People tell their friends how they’re feeling; they show them as well, but telling feels like the character is confiding in the reader with a first-person POV, while it feels like the narrator is doing the confiding with a third-person POV and thus creates distance between the reader and the character. Since I’m not using a first-person POV, the issue of conveying Tallulah’s internal existence is a bit tricky.

Although you can totally still alienate a reader in first-person POV. So ‘show don’t tell’ is very tricky, is basically what I’m trying to say. I did hear a neat trick once though, which I may have to start putting into practise again: if you’re writing in third-person and it feels a bit off, try writing the exact same thing in first-person, only switching ‘he/she’ and ‘his/her’ with ‘I/my’ and see how it reads. (I assume it works in reverse as well. And I guess it’d work with 2nd-person POV as well – just changing perspective in general seems like a pretty good way to examine aspects of your sentence structure.) To memory that’s always solved issues for me by making odd wording stand out very clearly. I wonder why I stopped …

Also, all of this is telling, what I’m doing now. Blogging. How did I not think of that earlier? The only way I could ‘show’ what I’m currently doing is if I recorded it and posted it up as a video. And I can assure you, that would not be very interesting or engaging at all.

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Ah, self-insertion.

There is a difference between, for instance, making a character say something you’d normally say yourself, and then making them have a very specific reaction to something that you have also had, but to something completely different; and then there’s coming back and reading it and realising that the reason you had for having that reaction makes total sense, and the reason given for the character having that same reaction makes no sense at all, and it’s incredibly embarrassing.

This book is one in which I am writing about so many things I don’t know. People say ‘write what you know’, and I think it’s important to note that they don’t say ‘only write what you know’, because otherwise, for instance, the fantasy genre wouldn’t exist. (Unless everybody just didn’t listen to that piece of advice. Which could totally happen, given how stupid and limiting it is when worded like that.) But it also bears remembering that, if you don’t know something, it’s going to be very difficult to write about it. And then there’s this sort of thing, where you know like 50% of it and go ‘well that’s good enough, I’m sure it approximates well enough to make up the other 50%’, and then no, actually, it really doesn’t, and you realise that, while you’re certainly allowed to speculate in writing, especially when it comes to stuff like fantasy and sci-fi, doing some research about real-life things – like panic-attacks and what triggers them, for instance – might not be a bad idea at all. Especially if your story/characters are rooted quite firmly in reality and you’re dealing with something kind of serious that affects people in real life, such as panic attacks. I guess you are technically allowed to offend and ostracise people by remaining ignorant about certain things and still write about them with your totally insufficient knowledge, but do you really want to? I don’t.

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This freaking Mary Sue thing keeps coming up. Just to be clear: my definition of a Mary Sue is a character who never has to deal with realistic or satisfying consequences for their behaviour, has no weaknesses or flaws and is surrounded by other characters who change characterisation depending on how the Mary Sue in question is feeling/acting at the time, to the point where they may as well be totally different characters depending on Mary’s mood or plot-objective. This chapter is nowhere near as bad as the last in that regard, but I ended up giving Tallulah some more character immunity and giving her an easy out of a painful, awkward situation.

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Solution found. Not quite as easily, but it was a really good-feeling solution. Pain is really good in stories about pain, guys. Just a heads-up. And it also gives me some much-needed verification that I was on the right track when I started this story, over a year ago – in fact almost a year and a half ago – and that a certain character needs to be brought in much earlier than she currently is in this draft. I waited far too long, and she’s far too central to Tallulah’s story, to only bring her in now.

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Well, that was a short chapter. And a blissfully painless one. I mean it had issues, but after that last one it was very welcome indeed. Think I’ll do one more.

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