Twelve Pieces of Advice About Draft Number Ten
Garnered From Painful Experience
And Years of Teaching Writing in General
1. Show, don’t tell.
You’ve probably heard this before.
The advice is good, it’s just not always easy to follow. Sometimes I want to show; I just want to sit down and tell my reader what’s going on—no dialogue, just the facts. This is particularly true if I’m in a hurry. Hurry is its own problem, of course—usually, if I’m in a hurry, it means I’m trying to pass off some deeply unattractive writing on my reader and hoping that he or she won’t notice the bad prose.
But back to showing and not telling.
“He was in love with her.” That little piece of telling does not, in fact, tell us much. So I’m going to try and tell you he loves her in a different way:
“There was a big jar of yellow and green and orange and red jelly beans on the counter. He knew she liked the yellow ones, and as she stood there, hand open, he sorted out every single yellow one and put them all in her warm palm.”
Now do you believe he loves her?
“They had been married for thirty years, but every morning, as she still slept, he took her hand and kissed each of her fingers, lightly, so she wouldn’t wake.”
Do you believe yet?
“The moon was so bright he could see her gold earrings glinting in her dark hair; then he closed his eyes and kissed her and immediately felt a fool for closing his eyes—he didn’t want to stop looking at her for even a moment.”
Now? A bit corny, maybe. But surely his love is becoming more convincing.
Narrating what is or was being said is, of course, telling (see A below). Dialogue is showing (see B below).
A. He told her he preferred her hair in braids, and she became angry, swore at him, and then hit him. He then said that she should wear her hair however she pleased.
B. “I like your hair better in braids,” he said.
“Screw you,” she said and slapped him.
“So wear it however you want,” he said, rubbing his cheek.
That’s a very obvious case of showing. Showing is up front, sometimes even in-your-face, and infinitely more fresh than telling. An added bonus: we believe what we see more than what we are told.
2. Quit smoking, drive carefully and live until you are wise.
This advice on how to be a writer comes from Andrea Barrett, author of Ship Fever and Archangel. She told me this after a reading, when I was lucky enough to be at dinner with her. Her answer should be cheering to all of us. While many young people excel at their craft, writing is one of the few vocations in the world where age can be an asset, and age is something that, with a bit of luck and some care, we can all acquire.
3. Appeal to the senses. All of them.
Shakespeare did it. You can too. Here’s how Shakespeare has the character, Enobarbus, describe Cleopatra on her barge:
The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne
Burnt on the water. The poop was beaten gold;
Purple the sails, and so perfumed that
The winds were lovesick with them. The oars were silver,
Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made
The water which they beat to follow faster,
As amorous of their strokes. For her own person,
It beggared all description: she did lie
In her pavilion—cloth-of-gold of tissue—
O’erpicturing that Venus where we see
The fancy outwork nature. On each side her
Stood pretty dimpled boys, like smiling Cupids,
With divers-colored fans, whose wind did seem
To glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool,
And what they undid did….
At the helm
A seeming mermaid steers. The silken tackle
Swell with the touches of those flower-soft hands,
That yarely frame the office. From the barge
A strange invisible perfume hits the sense
Of the adjacent wharfs. (Antony and Cleopatra, 2.2.201-223)
The description is one of the most overwhelmingly sensual in all of Shakespeare, in all of English literature. Multiple images bombard our senses. First, there’s the appeal to our sense of sight: the gold barge with purple sails, the silver oars, the pavilion with its cloth-of-gold, the smiling boys with their dimples who hold colored fans. There’s an appeal to our sense of hearing: we hear flutes, flutes by which the rowers keep time. Our sense of touch comes into play with the image of the water being stroked by the oars, as if that water were Cleopatra’s body, and we can almost feel the “the touches” of the woman with “flower-soft hands” who steers. Finally, the sense of smell: “a strange invisible perfume hits the sense.”
Okay. We’re not all Shakespeare. But we can all bring the reader’s various senses into play and not keep that reader blind to the colors of the world, or deaf to the sound of music or without a sense of touch or taste.
4. You know that fabulous sentence of yours? Cut it.
I’m talking about the sentence that’s going to win you the Pulitzer; your favorite sentence of the whole book. Chances are you’re probably going to end up cutting it eventually, so you might as well get it over with. What’s wrong with your stellar sentence? Two things. First, it may overshadow all your other sentences and stand as a redwood among the jack pines. Your less than lustrous sentences will seem just that: less lustrous. Second, your favorite sentence may very well be your most over-written, contrived and florid sentence. You like it now, but you may very well find your sentence less compelling after it sits for a while and then reveals its true nature.
5. Read your prose aloud.
This will make an overwritten sentence leap off the page and beg to be cut. Awkward sentences will come out of hiding; you will discover places that beg for a comma and others that plead to have one removed. Run-on sentences will make you run out of breath. Bad writing will suddenly embarrass you; good stuff may move you to tears. Better yet, read your prose aloud to someone else. Did that person lose the thread of the plot? Laugh in the wrong places? Run out of the room? Or, perhaps, if you’re on a very good writing spree, cry/smile/recoil in shock/appear queasy in all the right places? A good listener is worth a thousand words, and words, as you probably know, are not always easy to come by.
6. You’re only allowed to have one coincidence in your novel.
In life, there are many coincidences, but, in fiction, coincidences make it look as if the author were pulling a cheap trick, perhaps because that’s exactly what the author’s doing. Every writer is allowed one coincidence, but that’s the limit, so save your moment of fate for the right moment (“and Margaret turned out to be Harriet’s surrogate mother!”).
7. No double mumbo-jumbo.
This isn’t my idea, it’s Blake Snyder’s, and he’s eloquent on the topic in his book Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need. Like coincidence, your book is allowed only one bit of mumbo-jumbo. If the book’s plotline revolves around the love story of two smitten leprechauns who are going to be shunned by their parents, fine. But then you can’t throw in a zombie ¾ of the way through. One kind of mumbo-jumbo is more than enough. Books have genres: is yours a leprechaun book or a zombie book? There are exceptions to everything, of course. You’re certainly not going to get me started on vampires and werewolves.
8. Don’t overpopulate or under-populate your book.
Dickens got away with including hundreds of characters in his books, but he was, well, Dickens—and besides, all those Victorian authors had casts of thousands. But you want your reader to remember your characters, and not just from their little identifiers (one has no teeth, another always carries a live rabbit, a third eats sunflower seeds incessantly). They say that cats can’t remember more than six kittens. If a mother cat has seven kittens, she will invariably lose track of one. The same is true of characters. Personally, I draw the line at five major characters who we need to remember from beginning to end. More than five, and I start to lose track. But you can have all the walk-ons you want (as long as they serve a purpose). By the way, my limit of five major characters is only an example. My mother stuck to five (see “biography”). Maybe you can juggle seven. Or more. But watch out for a character who has gone missing for 100 pages—you may have simply forgotten all about her. And so will your reader. As for under-populating, well, I’m just not into extended one-on-one plotlines. Some are. Some extended dialogues are great art. And lots of movie buffs loved My Dinner with André. I just kept wondering when something was going to happen.
9. Don’t be sentimental.
You can have all the sentimental characters you want, but you need to be a grownup if you want to have a grownup novel (which is different than a novel for grownups).
10. No talking animals.
Not unless you’re Richard effing Adams.
11. Tough it out.
You have a hundred rejection slips from agents. Your friends don’t like your novel. Your mother doesn’t like your novel. Well, if your mother doesn’t like it, maybe it’s not very good, but it’s still not time to start selling real estate (unless that’s your true calling). Keep writing. Sit down at your desk. And go ahead. Stare at a piece of blank paper until your forehead bleeds. (See “On Writing”).
A little extra free advice. If you’re on draft number ten, you probably aren’t done yet.