Show. . .Don’t Tell

Dead Log Mt. Hood

In my last post I talked about a delightful walk in the forest that inspired the wilderness kingdom and its denizens depicted in my book, Warrior Queen of Ha-Ran-Fel.  Now, I reasoned, I had everything needed to finish the story.  All the material up to that point was perfect–or so I thought.

Well–If you’ve ever taken an English or Creative Writing class, you’ve probably at one time or another seen a margin note admonishing, “Show, don’t tell.” That, to me, simply meant using vivid descriptions and lots of action verbs. Or, if portraying a setting, lots of adjectives and adverbs. Makes sense, right? No. Not if you’re a serious writer intent on turning out quality content.

My original prologue to Warrior Queen of Ha-Ran-Fel painted a flowery Tolkienesque word watercolor of my fantasy world, six pages depicting the six kingdoms where the magic would unfold. I didn’t really understand a prologue’s function. I merely regarded it additional information for those readers interested in a more in-depth look at the book’s setting along with a little background. Chapter 1 introduced my heroine and then described how the city had fallen and her world shattered. Key word: Had. Any seasoned writer reading this instantly sees the problem. I, however, did not and neither did the people who read my draft. Of course, every submission resulted in rejection–and increasing dejection. The odds of Warrior Queen attaining publication matched the odds that the dried-up old log in the picture above would blossom and bloom.

At the Canby conference I enjoyed the added bonus of submitting the first 15 pages of my manuscript to an editor three weeks in advance. During that time the editor would review the manuscript and provide a critique ready for pick up the first day of the conference. If the manuscript showed promise, I would be granted an interview. Eagerly I perused the list of prospects and to my delight found a fantasy publisher. I dashed off the first 15 pages of Warrior Queen and then waited on pins and needles.

Day 1 of the conference I arrived early and picked up my packet and manuscript. Perching on a bench in the courtyard outside, I sucked in a breath and pulled the manuscript out of its brown envelope. I hadn’t expected the publisher to gush and rave. I craved only an honest opinion from an industry professional. What I pulled from that envelope, however, left me stunned and almost in tears. Every one of those fifteen pages had a big red X scrawled across it–except for the first paragraph of chapter 1, which had been circled and “OK’” written in the margin. No comments, no. . .nothing. Aghast, I leafed through the pages two or three times before noticing the evaluation sheet listing the review criteria. The publisher had written “N/A” at the top and then simply drawn a line the full length of the page. Not applicable. My manuscript couldn’t even be rated. My bottom lip trembled.

Then my eyes traveled to the box on the lower right-hand corner: “Reviewer’s comments: Needs work but shows promise. Would like to meet.” Shoving the manuscript back into the envelope, I raced to the check-in table and made my appointment.

Fifteen minutes allows no time for trifles, so I prepared the most crucial and pertinent question possible: Why? Jeff’s explanation completely turned everything I thought I knew about writing upside down and inside out, and gave me the tools and incentive to turn Warrior Queen into a riveting, fast-paced story.

“Think of your book as a movie,” he told me. “What do you want when you walk into that theater? Action! You want action from the minute the movie starts–otherwise, you’re out of there. You started your movie with twelve minutes of a blank screen and a narrator’s voice. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, we’re going to have a movie, but first we have to describe the set to you.’”

“Ok, we’ve described the set.  Now we come to Chapter 1. Roll the cameras. Enter the heroine. She lugs a bucket to the dung heap, pitches the contents onto the pile, and now we have to stop the cameras and explain to the audience how she met this deplorable fate.”

I laugh every time I think about that. But I learned more in those fifteen minutes than in all my hours of writing classes combined. A book truly is a movie. The action needs to flow. Now my prologue introduces the villains and tells my readers just enough about their impending devilry to generate suspense and keep them turning the pages. And, “Show, don’t tell?” Use backstory very sparingly. Don’t talk about what happened. Put your readers right in the middle of the action, make them so much a part of it that they feel like they’d better run or duck or dodge or. . .whatever. Keep the story moving and don’t bog it down with rambling descriptions or dialogue.

Above all, follow your passion, even when you feel like giving up,  Blossoms do spring out of ashes.

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