So often in writing circles you hear about “show” versus “tell”. From my experience, the amount of each in a manuscript varies by genre and more importantly a reader’s taste. The same submission to an agent or competition will be praised by one and shredded by the other. A writer who has sweat through the craft enough can correct that balance. An agent shares my vision for a manuscript and wants to represent me? Amen! Tell me what you want for the editors you plan to target. I can adjust the prose. A contest judge who has barely finished her first manuscript and doesn’t write in the same genre I do? I’ll stand by my run-on sentence, thanks. (And yes, grammar Nazis, run-on sentences can illustrate a character’s anxiety or thought process and how sometimes it goes faster than what her brain can whirl. Fragments work too. 😉 )
Let’s go a level deeper.
I mention on my home page that I write “high-impact” fiction. I first heard this term from publishing world guru, Donald Maass. (For details, I encourage you to look him up, read his books, attend a workshop, blog, etc.) One of my big takeaways from his wisdom is this: If you write safe, you can show all you want and still not affect the reader.
Instead, how can you write to impact the reader?
One of Mr. Maass’s techniques never fails to give me a sphincter moment—Identify the topic/emotion you don’t want to write about. That’s right. The one that repels you from your keyboard, makes you feel unsafe, and your first instinct is “Yeah, no. Not going there.”
Well, guess what? You have to. Explore it. Discover why you’re so uncomfortable. Figure out just how inept you are about that subject or emotion. Then give that feeling to your character.
I’ve spent 2018 writing the fourth manuscript in my series. My protagonist is an FBI agent. It’s her job to respond appropriately at all times. Her safety depends on it. Convictions of criminals depend on it. So, what happens when she’s thrown off-balance right after she achieved a lifelong goal? She’s unsteady. She’s not herself. No matter how hard she tries, she can’t fix it. And she must. Now.
Where does that hot mess come from?
Me. Dealing with (what feels like) my way-too-lengthy journey toward traditional publication. That every submission, every contest entry has to be perfect otherwise my goal will never happen. The pressure that no matter how far I trek into the publishing jungle, I will never make it through the “Amazon” alive.
Even as I write this post, frustration crackles in my mind like static. A word, or phrase when the answer almost comes into focus, like a contest win, is my drug. At last—the connection. The big break! But then the signal reverts to static again. The more I strain to listen the louder the noise becomes: My manuscript is going to my beta readers late. Illness. Monumental family events delay submissions: graduations, a relocation for my husband’s career, and a sump pump failure in my basement all within the last three months. Such issues happen to everyone, that’s nothing new. But do your frustrations play like static in your mind? What do they smell or look like? Only you can answer that.
Writing advice is everywhere. I embrace the fact I always have something to learn – it’s a joy of being a writer. But none of these well-meaning people know what I can bring to a manuscript. A unique power that writers, published or not, overlook way too often when they don’t allow their characters to reflect themselves.
The only thing I know for certain at this point is how to fail. So I use my face-plant talent to differentiate my writing. My “advice” can only echo that of Mr. Maass. Identify your greatest weakness, work up the guts to give it to your character, then display it to the world. When a writer is willing to announce: “Attention everyone: this is how I suck!” people can’t help but respond.
Especially in these times, with the explosion of social media, or the gazillion online reviews about products and services. People devote countless hours of their time, trying to convince others they are right. That they know best. And while much of what they say might be true, it’s all too often drier than an empty ice cream cone.
Instead, show the world how you’re wrong. Give that failure to the character you love most. Trash their life over it. Then together find the solution.
That’s far more memorable. And human.