Nothing says, “Kill your darlings” like red pen.
It’s been a little more than a month since I finished my mentorship with the Writers’ Guild of Alberta (and did my reading at Puke Fest Edmonton 2016) and I’m only now starting to absorb some of the important lessons I learned. Which is pretty good, since I’m also only now starting to absorb the allegory of the Cave, fifteen years or so after I studied Plato’s Republic. (Disclaimer: I still don’t get it.)
For your enlightenment, here are five things I learned, over and over and over again:
1. Scene and be scene.
This was my first epiphany. Stay in scene! When my mentor (gently) pointed out that I was bouncing from action to memory to unrelated backstory to a random vignette about pond frogs, I had an awakening. Novels are about scenes! And I had been abandoning my scenes faster than a mother of three who’s littlest one just collapsed a pyramid of pickle jars in aisle four. (Metaphorically, of course.)
As a reader, nothing loses me quicker than losing my place in a scene. “Ok, where are we now? I thought we were in France, how did we get to Germany? Who’s Werner?” Ok, maybe I shouldn’t use an example from one of the most stunning books I’ve ever read, but my point is I will never win a Pulitzer. So don’t try to be cute, Shannon. Stay in scene.
2. Show, don’t tell.
When I was young, I loved this cheesy movie about a washed-up hockey player who reluctantly partners with a cranky-yet-feminine figure skater for one last shot at an Olympic medal. As he’s learning how to move in his new figure skates, his partner keeps yelling, “Toe pick. Toe pick. TOE PICK!” (If you’re wondering, yes, they eventually hook up. Come on.)
“Show, don’t tell” is the mantra of all writing instruction, fiction or otherwise. I’ve been taught it for many years. So I’m as surprised as anyone to admit that sometimes, I still don’t do it. It wasn’t until my mentor wrote, “Show, don’t tell. Show, don’t tell. SHOW, DON’T TELL!” all over my first, second and third drafts that I started to finally nail that triple sow cow.
3. “I get it!,” said the writer, finally.
Dialogue! Writing dialogue is new to me, since inventing things people say is not really a thing we learn in journalism school. At first, I was a little shy to attempt dialogue, but once I tried it, I quickly became addicted. Like sushi. Or meth. Of course, you have to be careful not to overuse it, which I have a tendency to do in real life. (Dialogue. Not meth.)
Dialogue was actually one of my favourite methods to show, not tell in my writing. It helped me showcase my character’s voice, her personality, and her relationship to other characters without the buffer of a narrator. And, just as importantly, dialogue is sometimes the quickest way to move the story forward.
“Shall we move on to the next point?” she asked.
“Sure,” they said with forced enthusiasm.
4. Advance the story.
Much like leaving the scene, I also had a tendency to add a lot of extraneous information in my writing. So much so, that it was a distraction to my reader. Here are a few of my mentor’s actual notes, which were emphasized in red ink, from just one page of one draft of one chapter:
“This comes out of nowhere. Need to explain.”
“I’m a little confused here.”
“Can you figure out a way to insert this organically?”
“Do we need to know this?”
Every detail needs to advance the story. I’m sure you’ve heard that, “In writing, you must kill your darlings.” Well. My first draft endured a bloody massacre. It was Tarantino-level. But it made my story better. Throughout my mentorship, it would sometimes take me weeks to finally let go of a superfluous character, scene or plot line that may have seemed brilliant, but didn’t really belong. But it made the story better. Cutthroat!
5. Stuff is hard.
At the end of almost every meeting with my wonderful, supportive mentor, I would plop my head onto my mounting piles of red-penned pages, overwhelmed by the things I still didn’t know, and I’d sob, “HOW do people do this?”
It seems as though, if there is something you want very badly, getting it should be easy. Not so. Never so. In fact, it’s the wanting it so badly that makes the getting it that much harder. Writing isn’t the hardest thing I’ve ever done or will ever do. Having kids is hard. Seeing them get hurt is hard. Having to explain the anatomy of a very invigorated German Shepard is hard. (Super hard.)
Nevertheless, embracing this ambition to be a writer has been a challenge, and frankly, I don’t like to be challenged. I don’t like to be brave. I don’t like to be scared, I don’t like getting my feelings hurt and I don’t like getting my ego bruised.
But what do I tell my kids, aside from, “Maybe you should pet the dog another time, honey.” I tell them, “It’s in the trying. It’s important to try.” It doesn’t always work, especially not with “odd” coloured vegatables, but maybe it will work for me. I hope. We’ll see.