Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Practice What You Preach!


(This picture has nothing to do with the post; I just have a cute kitty!)

If you've read this blog very much, you know I am a big proponent of a "show, don't tell" style of fiction writing. That's what was at the heart of the complaint I had in the last post about Pride and Prejudice - at a crucial moment, Austen chose to tell us what was going on instead of letting us watch it happen. I like the "show, don't tell" style because it makes the reader a partner in what's going on. Instead of telling us someone said insulting things, let us hear the character saying the words, so we can say, "Gosh, that was insulting! I would be mad if I were Elizabeth."

Lest I be accused of being a literary hypocrite, I want to assure you I try very hard to incorporate "show, don't tell" into my own writing. Recently, I've been editing the first draft of my second novel, in preparation for self-publishing the first and having one ready as a followup. I wrote the draft nearly three years ago when I was on sabbatical from teaching, and one of the things that concerned me about it was the amount of "telling" that it used. The story is narrated (in first-person, of course) by the male main character from the first book. In trying to get the story down, I think I had him tell us everything rather than letting some of it develop by showing. So that's one of the main things I'm working on in this edit (along with trying to figure out how this story ends, ha ha).

I guess because I'm desperate for feedback, I've decided to use a couple of sections from my work to show the difference between the first draft and the second. In some cases, there's not as much difference as I thought there would be; in others, I hope I've improved the story.




Excerpt #1: In this section, the protagonist (John David McKellar) has decided to squat illegally on land designated for the Cherokee Indians. He's just finished putting in his corn crop and wants to go check out the area.
(Original draft) She seemed to think it was a good idea, so the next morning before the sun was up, she cooked a couple of hoecakes and wrapped them in a rag for me. I tucked them in my pocket, shouldered my rifle, and started toward the north, keeping close to the creek for my guide. The morning was a fine one, with bright streaks of sunlight streaming through the trees and all kinds of little birds twittering somewhere in the leaves above me. I began to whistle along with them, under my breath so as not to scare any game, though I had no intention of shooting anything this early. I was exploring, not hunting yet – I’d shoot some meat on my way back, after I’d looked over the mountains. 
It was mid-morning before I came to any rough ground. The mountains were some different from what I’d known in Campbell County. Back home, the mountains rose at a steep angle; here, it was a longer, flatter rise. But otherwise the terrain was so familiar I might have been climbing one of the mountains that surrounded Pa’s farm. The creek became narrower as I followed it into the higher country, pushing my way through the brush growing along the banks. After a time, it forked, and I stood for a while pondering before staying to the left, mainly because I didn’t want to get wet crossing, but also because the left fork seemed to stay on a more northerly path. I kept on until I caught a glimpse of the sun through the trees that told me it was midday, so I sat in a grove of big beech trees and ate the food Maggie had packed.
Now for the revised draft:
She seemed to think it was a good idea, so the next morning before sunrise, she cooked a couple of extra hoecakes and wrapped them in a rag for me. I held to her hand as she tucked them into my pocket. 
“I'll be back by dark. You'll be all right here alone.” I'd meant it to be reassurance, but it came out sounding like a question. 
She smiled up at me. “Sure I will. I can handle the hatchet. I'll be just fine—don't you worry at all.” 
I started toward the north, keeping close to the creek for my guide. The morning was a fine one, with bright streaks of sunlight streaming through the trees and all kinds of little birds twittering in the leaves above me. I began to whistle along with them, under my breath so as not to scare any game, though I had no intention of shooting anything this early. I was exploring, not hunting yet—I’d shoot some meat on my way back, after I’d looked over the mountains. 
Except for the briars and brush growing along the creek, the walking was easy. It was mid-morning before I came to any rough ground. These mountains were some different from what I’d known in Campbell County. Back home, the mountains rose at a steep angle; here, it was a longer, flatter rise. But otherwise the land was so familiar, with its rocky gullies and bluffs, that I might have been climbing one of the mountains around Pa’s farm. I took a side trip to climb one of those bluffs, coming out on a flat ledge high above the treeline. Below, miles of tree tops stretched out as far as I could see. In the distance, more mountains wrapped the horizon with shades of blue. 
“Look at this land!” I shouted into the stillness. “Eden itself couldn't be prettier!” 
The creek narrowed as I followed it into the higher country. After a time, it forked, and I stood for a while pondering before staying to the left, mainly because I didn’t want to get wet crossing, but also because the left fork seemed to stay on a more northerly path. I kept on until it was past midday and my belly was rumbling, then I sat in flattened area with a grove of big beech trees and ate the food Maggie had packed.
This portion of the story is, to me, a really difficult place to try to use "show, don't tell," mainly because the character is alone. A lot of the "showing" in a story comes in the interaction between characters; how do you get that interaction when no one else is around? Instead, for this section, I tried to use three things to get a more "show-y" feel: a few lines of dialogue (even if he's talking to himself), more description as seen through his eyes (details he would have noticed), and what Mary Kole calls "interiority," meaning the things a person is thinking. That last one is HARD. I think I understand the concept - that we get to hear the person's thoughts and to decide what's going on by piecing them together. But that's where a lot of "telling" can creep in, when the character starts to tell us what he's thinking instead of thinking it (if that makes any sense!).

Here's another pair of excerpts from my drafts that I've struggled with some in terms of the three elements above. In this section, John David has injured his ankle while he's out exploring.

(original) I still can’t say for sure what happened next. Best I can recollect, I was stepping from a rock in the ravine to the edge when the rock shifted under me and slid away. Mostly what I remember is the sharp pain that ran up my leg. I know I dropped my rifle, and I know I fell forward onto the edge of the ravine, banging my shoulder on a rock. But that pain was nothing compared to the pain in my foot and leg, spreading in a tight ripple from somewhere deep inside. I dug into the dead leaves with my elbow and pulled myself further onto the edge of the ravine, fighting the urge to puke. 
That urge kept growing as I pulled my knee up and took off my moccasin. My ankle was already swollen so I could hardly tell where the knobby little bone should be. 
“My God,” I groaned. “It’s broken.” And then the bile refused to stay down any longer. I emptied my belly then lay back on the ground with my arm over my eyes. 
“How am I going to get home?” I said out loud. “It’s miles back to camp! And Maggie – she’s alone – she won’t know where I am –”
I lay there for a while, wallowing in the misery of being alone and in pain, until I heard a soft rustling nearby. I popped my eyes open and reached for my rifle, fearful with my luck it really would be a bear this time. But it was just little bird searching through the leaves for something, and I watched until she flew away. Then I sat up and looked at my ankle again. It was nearly as thick around as my calf, and though the light was starting to fade, I could see dark splotches were settling above my foot. Gritting my teeth against the pain, I tried to move my foot. It hurt like the devil, but I could force it to wiggle up and down and then side to side. I dropped back on the leaves again, swallowing another round of bile. 
“All right,” I told myself. “It moves. That’s a good sign. Maybe it ain’t broken. Maybe I can make it home if I take it slow.”

Now the revision:
I still can’t say for sure what happened. Best I recall, I was stepping from a rock to the edge of the ravine when the rock shifted under me and slid away. Mostly what I remember is the sharp pain that ran up my leg. I dropped my rifle and fell forward onto the edge of the ravine, banging my shoulder on another rock. But that pain was nothing compared to the pain in my foot and leg, that was spreading in a tight ripple from somewhere deep inside. I dug into the dead leaves with my elbows to pull myself over the edge of the ravine, fighting the urge to puke. 
That urge kept growing as I raised my knee and carefully pulled up my pants leg. My ankle was already so swollen I could hardly see the knobby little bone on the side. 
“My God,” I groaned. “It’s broken.” And then the bile refused to stay down any longer. I emptied my belly then lay back on the ground with my arm over my eyes.
“How will I get home?” I said out loud. “It’s miles back to camp! And Maggie--she's alone—she don’t know where I am—” 
My heart was racing. I'd heard the stories back home of men who never came home from a hunt. Sometimes folks found a body, but here no one was around to look. The solitude I'd relished all day seemed to be mocking me now, with no sounds around but the little birds in the trees, twittering away with no concern at all for the pain shooting through my leg, all the way to the hip. I would die here on the edge of this ravine, a slow death by starving, and the buzzards would pick my carcass clean while Maggie waited at camp. How long would she be able to last there on her own? All she had to protect herself was a hatchet. If a wolf came, or even a mad skunk— 
The leaves rustled softly nearby, and I turned my head toward the sound, half fearful but half hoping it really would be a bear this time to finish me off quick. But it was just a little bird, searching through the leaves for something. I watched her hopping lightly over the leaves, and something of my sense came back to me. I sat up to look at my ankle again. 
It was nearly as thick around as my calf now, and though the light was starting to fade, I could tell dark splotches were settling above my foot. Gritting my teeth against the pain, I tried to move my foot. It hurt like the devil, but I could force it to wiggle up and down and then side to side. I dropped back on the leaves again, swallowing another round of bile. 
“It moves,” I told myself. “That’s a good sign. Maybe it's not broken.” 
I sat up and leaned into the ravine to fetch my rifle. Using it as a sort of crutch, I managed to get to my feet, or at least to standing on one foot. Every time I shifted weight to my bad foot, a wave of pain nearly overwhelmed me. But I forced myself to take a few shuffling steps, and I didn't swoon. 
“All right,” I said, wiping the cold sweat off my brow. “I can make it home if I take it slow.”
I know there are a lot of similarities between the two drafts, but I hope the second draft does a little more to put the reader in the scene.

Well, if you've stuck with me to this point, thank you - you are wonderful. And if you don't mind, can you let me know what you think? Am I making the story better, or just adding words? Am I showing, or is there still too much telling?

7 comments:

Ephemera said...

Ok...here are my two cents.

I REALLY liked the revision to the first piece. It almost made me feel like it was me seeing and thinking those things. I can't say exactly why that is. It just grabbed me better for some reason.

On the second one, I didn't have that same feeling. I actually didn't feel much difference between reading the two passages. I'll back and read them again, and might have another comment to add after that. I know you'll be on the edge of your seat! LOL

Augustina Peach said...

It might be that I was in such a big hurry to finish the post so I could get to work that I didn't pick a very good section for that second one.....

Ann Turnbull said...

I thought both revisions were a big improvement. Having him talk to his wife at the beginning of the first one immediately brought the scene to life for me - it was much better. In the second excerpt, first version, I simply didn't realise how much DANGER he was in. (Yes, I know he thinks briefly about bears, but we readers can be inattentive!) In the second version his thoughts really make it clear that he's afraid he could die out there before anyone finds him.

I've just been struggling with exactly the same problem myself, and, like you, I've got my character talking. Fortunately he has a dog to talk to!

Augustina Peach said...

Thanks for your comment, Ann. And may I ask, what are you working on now? More historical fiction? (hope, hope...)

Ann Turnbull said...

I'm writing two VERY short novels about the Great Plague and Great Fire of London for a series for 7-9 year olds and have just finished the first one. News about these should go up on my website fairly soon - when my webmaster has time - and I hope I'll also have cover pictures to put on my Facebook page next week. (Several unformed YA story ideas are also in my head - all historical!)

Ann Turnbull said...

By the way, what is your cute kitty doing? I can't figure out what's going on, or which way up he/she is!

Augustina Peach said...

She is lying on the heater vent to get the warm air! The picture was taken from above, as she was hiding behind a chair. She's VERY shy, but we say she is the smartest cat of the three we have.

I'm thrilled to hear you are working on historical story ideas. I know there's probably a lot of pressure to write stuff that is more "marketable."