Friday, July 26, 2013

The Myth of "Show, don't tell," addition 1

It has been a looooooooong time since I wrote a post about writing. What with Miles Trevor keeping me busy, it has been hard to find any time to write. But as I begin to see the light at the end of that tunnel, I can begin work on my other (late) projects.

This one here is overdue. Since I wrote that post about "show, don't tell," I meant to add to it. The post was such an enormous one that I couldn't get everything I wanted into it. This is the first of many additions, where I will elaborate on some points I made earlier.

The first addition focuses on a subject I only hinted at in the first "show, don't tell" post: What does sensory information tell you?

Mind you, these are my thoughts. Whenever I present one of my preferences, I will say so and will make clear that there are other preferences and that there is no one "correct" or "best" preference.

And so, here are my thoughts on sensory information.

Sensory Information and Emotional States

I: A word on Description

I may have said this before, but I will say it again. What the writer of fiction does is manipulate the elements of fiction towards some end. So, what does that mean?

In laymen's terms, writers of fiction describe events that are of a fictional nature. Here, I won't go on a tangent about narration in fiction that does not describe events, but gives insights into the opinion of the character / narrator / author. 

The word "event" should not be confused with the word "scene" or "action." A scene is part of a play. Action, in fiction, involves many events.

An event is an occurrence or happening that may or may not involve characters, but always involves setting (characters and setting are elements of fiction). 

A description of a wedding includes characters and setting. A description of a storm in the desert may not include characters. 

Note: The description of an event involves more than just characters and setting; tone, pace, rhythm, diction, dialogue, etc. are equally important, but for the nature of this post, I will focus on characters and setting.

II: A word on Sensory Information

What is Sensory Information? It is data collected by sensory receptors in your body, which your brain interprets. This usually involves the five senses: Touch; sight; sound; smell; taste.

Note: In some fictions, there are more than five senses. My concern here lies with the five senses only. 

A common piece of advice given to writers is that they should evoke the senses. This seems like fair advice, but they never say why. It confused me for a long time. Why evoke the senses?

The answer is obvious now: We make sense of the world thanks to the information gathered by the senses. Except there is a hiccup to this. Whenever I read a book, I'm not tasting the food described, or smelling the flowers, or admiring the piece of art, or touching this or that...

When I read, I hold a book in my hands. The data my bran interprets is brought in by my eyes only.

How do writers evoke other senses then? Consider that whenever a sunset is described, my mind creates a picture aided in part by the description in the book and the images of sunsets that come from my experiences. It is the same when a writer describes the taste of food or the smell of flowers and other things or the feel of this or that or the way a voice sounds; my mind helps by summoning memories of similar foods I've consumed and flowers I've smelled and textures I've encountered and people I've heard. A skilled author may help you more by stimulating your imagination, but this can only go so far. 

Even when describing a futuristic world or a fantasy world or some item or phenomenon never experienced by the reader, the brain must use existing data gathered from experience to fill in the blanks. And this is always the case, regardless of what senses the author tries to evoke.

III: Perception and Sensory Information 

How do I make you understand that I am sad? Do I go up to you and tell you? Can you deduce it thanks to some clue(s)? 

One of the most disappointing aspects of being human is not knowing with 100% certainty what other humans feel or think. 

When you see a person in tears, do you automatically think they are upset? If you see someone laugh, do you automatically think they are happy? The sensory information gathered is very limited. Consider also that the emotions I just mentioned, happy, upset, are some of the simplest there are. What about complex conditions like depression? 

This poses a challenge to writers who want you to clearly understand the emotional states of their characters. Of course, emotions and emotional states have been around since the dawn of humanity. And since then, storytellers have sought ways to convey them.

My Preference: A fine way to gain ideas about describing emotional states is to look at stories from the past, which describe emotional states that now have clinical labels, like depression. Look at Melville's short story, Bartleby, the Scrivener. The word depression is absent from the text, but the titular character's mental state can easily fall under that category.

IV: The Myth of "Show, don't tell"

I have read countless blog posts and articles describing the "best" way to describe emotions. Many of these lean on the mantra, "show, don't tell." Or, that I should "show" the emotions the characters feel, not "tell" the reader about them. 

Many of these articles literally just told me to do this and that and this and that, and heaven help me if I did it this other way because that's the mark of an amateur. Many of these articles and blog posts gave reasons for why their way of doing things is correct. 

Of course, these are just preferences. I can argue for my own preferences, but why do it? I have my preferences, you should too. And, as I may have said before, in the battle of the preferences, yours should always win.

Let me give you examples of what I saw:

The room spun and Johnny gripped a table to keep steady; his heart thumped and thumped against his chest like a police officer trying to break down a door. He let out half giggles for no reasons except that the moment called for them. He noticed one of Mrs. Hammerstein's roses in the distance and he marveled at its beauty and glory. The sun had just emerged from the clouds and his mind was a sea of hope, guiding him towards a brighter future.

Mary dug in her pocket for her keys, but her fingers failed to grip them. "Why go in there?" she thought. She knew with all certainty what was waiting for her if she opened that door. Doug would want dinner right away and yell at her for it not being warm enough or because it was too warm. "I'll make some snide remark and he'll slam the plate down." And she would go to the bathroom and stay there and he would call out her name to come and give him another beer. And another beer. And another beer. "And then the world will end when he wraps his arms around me in bed and fucks me."

Christina quickly pulled the curtain to conceal her face.

Walt lingered at the entrance to the pitch black cave. His hands trembled and when he took an exploratory step into the darkness, he stumbled on something and yelped. It took a few seconds for him to steady his breathing and take another step. 

A car's tires squealed and the deafening clap and crunch of two cars colliding filled the office. Terry ran to the window, along with others. She did not take a breath when she noticed it was her husband, Ronald's car, split in half, its fluids coating the sidewalk surface. She gasped, as a diver reaching the surface, when Ronald stepped out of the mess, red, red with blood, and collapsed.

The theory in these examples is that if you use specific details, or "showing" instead of "telling," that the reader will be more engaged in the emotion. 

Examining these examples, one thing is clear: They use sensory information. In other words, if you or I were in the setting, looking at these individuals, we might gather the information given in the description. 

So, what are these people feeling? 

I wrote these, so I should know. But I don't. 

Is Johnny happy or has he lost his mind or does he suffer from bi-polar disorder and this is a manic episode?

And Mary's example does not count. Do you see why? Thoughts. The narration quotes her thoughts and describes them since it is a Close Third Person POV. Her thoughts "tell" you what she feels even while they never mention any emotion. They are not specific details we would be able to witness. 

Is Christina embarrassed or trying to hide that she's blushing or self-conscious about her looks? 

Is Walt afraid? Are you sure he is? What if I told you he was procrastinating because this was the first day on the job as a part of a rescue team and he was nervous? Nervous or afraid?

What specifically about Terry's actions tell you what emotion she is feeling? She could easily be ecstatic or shocked, depending on how she feels about Ronald. Maybe she had been plotting to kill him and Fate stepped in and did it for her. 

And so, here are a few lessons that I learned while researching:

1) Sensory Information tells you very little. Tears on someone's face "show" you nothing except tears on someone's face.

2) Without context, it is nearly impossible to tell what a character is undergoing emotionally.

3) Without a clear understanding of what the character is feeling, it is difficult for me to respond appropriately; should I feel sorry for Johnny or laugh with him? Should I feel pity for Terry or despise her for getting what she wanted?

4) Why are all of those examples in the Third Person voice? I have never come across one that is in the First Person. The answer is that First Person POV is vastly different than Third Person and so, "show, don't tell" would have to be modified extensively to work there (something nobody really wants to do).

V: On Emotional States

While Hemingway's A Clean, Well-Lighted Place is in my opinion a beautiful and important short-story (in my top ten list), his Hills Like White Elephants is painful to read.  

Part of the reason I dislike Hills so much is that it reads like a creative writing assignment: Write a story in which you describe every event without the benefit of thoughts or naming the emotional states of the characters. It is gimmicky. It screams that the writer is exploring a technique. 

And those examples I gave above read just like that (to me anyway). I kept thinking, "Why is the writer beating around the bush?" It also feels exaggerated, like you want me to know that you can definitely describe things. 

Would a simple, "Johnny began to have a manic episode," help me understand Johnny "better"? 

Who the hell knows! All that I have of Johnny's story is that one piece. Who knows what it's about or what the pace of the piece is or tone or intent? Without all of that, there is no way I can say what would be more appropriate. Maybe the first sentence of Johnny's story would be: Here was Johnny H., who suffered from bi-polar disorder. Maybe that would work. 

I don't know. 

I do know there are many ways to describe emotional states. Your preferences and story context will dictate which way is appropriate. 

I also know that anyone who says there is only one correct way to describe emotion is wrong. That, my friends, is a myth.


Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Local Author Faire

Local Author Faire 2013

Palos Verdes Library District is proud to present the 2nd Annual Local Author Faire!
Are you a local author?  Would you like an opportunity to share your work with your community?  Then, this event is for you! 
We are now accepting applications from local authors for the event on Sunday, September 29, 2:00 to 5:00 p.m. at Peninsula Center Library.  The deadline for applications is Monday, August 12.  Local authors should drop off a copy of their book to the Peninsula Center Library, Administration Office, 2nd Floor or mail to: Palos Verdes Library District, Administration, 701 Silver Spur Rd., Rolling Hills Estates, CA 90274.
We would like to showcase local authors from the Palos Verdes area, though it may be possible to accommodate authors from the greater Los Angeles area as well.  We welcome authors of all genres—fiction, non-fiction, children’s, mystery, romance, historical, etc. 
At the event, each participating author will be given a table and two chairs and a chance to speak or read.  Promotion will be done prior to the event.
For more information, please call: 310-377-9584 ext. 310 or email
Space is limited.  Palos Verdes Library District reserves the right to choose the authors to showcase.  There are no refunds on application fees.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Quantum Covers, redux...

There are two more weeks left in July! Holy Mother! It's all going by too fast and I'm not getting as much done. I realize this and asked for a little help.

I shouldn't be spending so much time on my book covers since it's taking away from working on my projects. At the pace I'm going, I'll be lucky to get anything else published this year. Thankfully, I asked for some help and got it.

Niina from Helsinki (this is her website), Finland, offered some help and I accepted. Here are the covers she did for me:

Now I can focus on the actual novel.


Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The Month of July

Well, I've about put volume two of The Quantum of the Past out of my misery. I'm finishing up the copy-edits currently. With that goes the bulk of the burden, so to speak. Volume three is not as long.

Last month I made almost no progress on any of my projects. The Santa Monica College shootings soured that for me. And Quantum took up what time I did use.

So, it's time to play catch-up. And what a month to do it! The summer is in full bloom with temperatures and humidity peaking high, high.

I finally restarted Ascension today and each day I will add something to it. My goal is to have a draft by the end of August. This is actually a fun thing for me, since the Detective Adam story is less complex than anything in Miles Trevor.

But I'm going to split my days in two (my free days that is). Each day I will also work on one of the short stories that will make up The Wizards. This too I want to have drafted by the end of August.

And yes, I do mean to read all the books on my list. I've had to extend the deadlines on the books I checked out from the library and can't keep those indefinitely.

I am very pleased that I can get back to work.