Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Don't Get Bogged Down

What I'm reading: A Cinderella Affair, by A.C. Arthur.

Thanks, Debra for being my guest. Renovating is very much on my mind lately--both in writing and living quarters.

A brief house recap. Closing is still on schedule. We transferred the money to the title company. We got homeowner's insurance. We have the walk-through scheduled. We spent about two hours signing up for television, land phone lines, new cell phones (current carrier has very marginal coverage in that area), internet, and on and on. The Hubster has been diligent about calling the utility companies to make sure everything will be in our name. Meanwhile, I've been looking into the other creature comforts. New pots & pans, bedding, glasses, flatware, and on and on. We got rid of almost everything before we left, and we've been living in a furnished apartment. Bed Bath & Beyond is loving me. And I'm loving their never-expire coupons and rebates.

And, in what seems to be routine, I've got a conference that begins the day after closing. (Anyone else going to the Pikes Peak Writers Conference, search me out. I'll be the stressed out one, and it won't be because I'm worried about pitching.)

And on to writing:

I recently judged contest entries for a RWA chapter for unpublished authors. Since they submit no more than the 1st 25 pages of their manuscripts, I've been Atrying to make sure that the things I was critical of in their work don't show up in mine first few chapters. One of the most common mistakes was bogging down the opening pages in back story.

When I'm writing, all those "Why?" questions I ask have to be answered immediately or I'm afraid the errors and inconsistencies will grow out of control, like an avalanche thundering down the mountainside. (Note the new imagery – a month or so ago, it would have been some tropical storm-hurricane reference!)

But they don't need to be answered on the page in chapter one. As I mentioned, there have to be logical reasons for a character to behave the way he or she does, and the author has to know them, but deciding when the reader needs to know them is another thing.

Explaining too much, especially if you write in either first person, or deep third POV, will slow the read. You as the author know what a character is responding to, but the character doesn't have your insight. Explaining just enough to keep the reader turning pages is the goal. Admittedly, it's a balancing act. Starting with nothing but action leaves the reader confused about who the characters are, and why they should care. Filling in too many details can get boring. We've all endured the "let me tell you my life" people at cocktail parties. That shouldn't be chapter one.

Since it's inappropriate to use anyone else's work as an example of the too much back story in the opening scene, I put together an over the top one of my own. Yes, it's exaggerated, but sadly, I saw some contest entries that came close to this kind of opening.

Jillian opened the car door and looked at her new home in the rural Colorado mountains. After she and her son, Will, had run away from her husband, Vince, because he'd been beating her, she'd been a resident at the Galloway House Shelter, where she'd made good friends with Miri Chambers, whose boyfriend, Dalton, had hooked Jillian—who was now going by the name Elizabeth—up with Grace Ellsworth, a former World War II spy. But now Elizabeth was on her own, trying to start a new life, hoping Vince wouldn't find her. Will hadn't been happy about the move, but since he'd seen horses, cows, and deer, he seemed to be coming around, even though he'd had to leave his puppy behind.

Granted, it'll take a little longer to get all those plot points worked in, but the reader might stay awake, and actually want to know what's going to happen next.

Now, even though this is still in first draft form, here's an example of working the information in without beating the reader over the head with it.

Elizabeth squeezed her son's shoulder. There's no such thing as forever, she wanted to say.

Will turned away from the window. "They'll come back, won't they?"

At least his tone had changed. His somber mood had lifted when they'd passed fields with horses and cows alongside the road as they drove to their new home. And ever since he'd seen the herd of deer walk through the yard, he'd stopped complaining about leaving Grace's house.

Pointedly avoiding his first question, she nodded. "I think deer have favorite places. So if our yard is one of theirs, I'm sure they'll come back. But probably not right away. They have things to do. And so do we."

His brown-eyed gaze, so like the puppy's he'd had to leave behind, captured her heart. How could someone so young look so solemn? And be so blasted perceptive. "Don't worry, Mom. We'll be fine here. Grace said so. And so did Miri."

So you see the difference? It boils down to the old, "Show, Don't Tell", so I figured showing was better than telling.

I'll continue tomorrow, which is our closing day, so I might not be around to respond to comments. Don't let that stop you from leaving them…I'll be checking back when I can. And Friday, Jason has another treat—his behind the scenes look at the Colorado Wolf and Wildlife Center in Divide.


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Good points here, Terry. You're right..those data dumps just overwhelm a reader. I'm putting this in my scheduled tweets today!

Mystery Writing is Murder

Debra St. John said...

Thanks again for having me yesterday! I wish you continued good luck and success with the new house!

Terry Odell said...

Debra - the pleasure was mine. And I'm sure to be updating progress here on the blog, on both the house and the writing.

Terry Odell said...

Elizabeth, thanks so much for stopping by--and for the tweet. You're the queen at Twitter.

Carol Kilgore said...

Great post. I hope your closing goes smoothly.

Terry Odell said...

Carol - you and me both!

Texas Writer said...

Best of luck with the closing--and thanks for your service as contest judge.

I've found that my story actually begins well into the book, so I'm figuring to offer the first (now cut) chapters as a free read on my blog.

Good information, and thanks again!

Terry Odell said...

Texas Writer - I enjoy judging - side benefit: the focus on my own writing mechanics.

After writing 8 books, I find I'm only cutting 2 or 3 chapters, not 8 or 9! Good idea about the free read. I've got some short stories related to my books on my website, but didn't think about offering my 'false starts'

Terry Stonecrop said...

Good idea to "show" the show-don't-tell.

Best of luck for a smooth closing!

Terry Odell said...

Terry S - might as well practice what I preach. And thanks for the good wishes.

Diane Craver said...

Thanks for the post - good reminder of what not to do. :) Liked your excerpt of showing and not telling.