Character Goal: Do Not Hide It

We need to know the character goal—explicitly. This allows the reader to take that goal and turn it into a long-term story question.

This was a revelation to me… WHAT?! We don’t lead the reader like a stealthy ninja through our story and keep them guessing, pull them along, make them keep turning those pages?

No.

The goal of each scene is to relate the story question in some way CLEARLY.

If the reader does not understand the story goal, why should he/she stay engaged? How will the reader identify with the character emotionally? And this is rub of the whole bit of writing a story or novel, having someone care about our book, about the character, maybe even identify with some universal longing or emotion. It is much trickier to do than typing up a short blog post…

I have found that taking a highlighter to books that I love, and highlighting the want of the character in each scene (and understanding how that ties to the story questions), is a great way to “get” how to write that character goal explicitly. (And because I have issues with marked up books, I have to purchase two copies of the book right away. A clean copy for my shelf, and my it-gives-me-pain-to-mark-you-up copy.)

I recently read Love, Aubrey by Suzanne LaFleur, thanks to a recommendation by a critique partner. This book is written in a lovely, melancholy language and emotion (there is a beauty to this book because of the sadness in it).  I mention it specifically because before the first scene even breaks, right on page six, we know what Aubrey wants. Aubrey wants a family. From there, WE WANT to KNOW through the whole book and every scene, will Aubrey get that family? How could we root for Aubrey, if the author did not let us (the readers know) what it was that Aubrey wanted? Well we wouldn’t of course… and that is the whole point. Let the reader know the goal. Don’t string her or him along.

No ninja hiding with character goals.

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Telling vs. Showing: A Balance

If it looks like a duck, acts like a duck…it must be a duck (spoiler alert: the picture is of a goose), and yet, the day I took this picture, a little boy ran around trying to catch the duck. The goose hissed at him, and said in a huff, “I don’t look anything like a duck.” But the kid kept calling it a duck.

What does this have to do with writing middle grade? It makes me think about Telling in writing… If it looks like telling, acts like telling, it must be telling (so delete?).

Telling in writing is NOT a very bad, no good, horrible action. Sometimes it feels like it is a writing crime to tell in writing. It is not. In fact, Telling is as much of a requirement as Showing in a great read, and too much Showing would be just as much of a problem (and would become a tedious read). There needs to be balance.

This knowledge (of balance, and Telling being good) was an epiphany and a relief. Very sensible approach to storytelling, I thought.

Yet, critiques and even conference presentations do not seem to get this message across. Perhaps this is the art of discovery as we journey to become better writers?  Honing our craft, writing, laboring, suffering…

Maybe I can relieve the bit about the suffering.

I’m here to tell you I’m going to show you the best books I have found on the topic of Show vs. Tell. It also means I am not going to reinvent the wheel by coming up with luminous (clever, astute, brilliant) writing examples in this post. I devote my time to writing stories, and to learning the craft from people who have already devoted large amounts of their time teaching us the finer point of novel writing. I am passing on what worked for me, because with so many books out there, I have found some are better at some bits, and not others, and it can all get very overwhelming when you start hunting for examples (that are both good examples, and specific).

I enjoyed (*both authors have very different writing styles, flip through the books and see what you will be comfortable with):

  • Troubleshooting Your Novel, by Steven James. Mr. James writes, “Show struggles. Tell goals.” He breaks down examples in a table, with the story element described, and then a concrete explanation on if it should be show or tell. (Notice I said concrete examples, not nebulous statements on what writers should or should not do.)

 

  • Writing Irresistible Kidlit, by Mary Kole. Her book is dense! I am on my third read of it, it is that dense. It is like a hearty, dark rye bread. Very filling and best eaten slow. Ms. Kole’s section on Be a Curator, Not a Camera, is an example of what not to write when you are narrating (and why). “Don’t let a character or narrator impartially record the events and relay them to the reader….” The whole book is peppered with specific examples from kidlit, and explanations of what works and why. One particularly fitting example in Kole’s book comes from a section on the middle grade novel Alvin Ho: Allergic to Girls, School, and Other Scary Things by Lenore Look (pg.59). Ms. Kole shows us the Showing, why it builds tension, how the reader is able to see that Alvin’s father is upset, and how we as the reader actually feel the fact that Alvin is threatened. She also discusses several types of Telling, and explains two should be avoided, and one can be used skillfully as part of our writing toolkit.

 

 

Brain Science: Why I Can’t Catch My Own Mistakes

I can’t catch my own mistakes because I am smart. You can’t catch your mistakes because you are smart.  And there you have it, this is the one (very good) reason why we need critique partners. We are too smart to see our own mistakes. Our brain looks for meaning when it reads something, especially with our own products. We also become so familiar with our own stories that we skip over problems; our own brain fills in the gaps and skitters across the errors. The brain knows the story we are creating, so why pause or stop over something that has nothing to do with the actual story? The brain is very helpful in that way…

Editing is a different skill.

Remember when we create, we concentrate on the story we weave (and the meaning/s we want so much to convey).

And this whole time I thought it was because I took a wrong turn in my education. Then I thought something was wrong with me, why wasn’t I catching misspellings? Why on earth do I like to write “your” when it should be “you’re” and vice versa? (AND WHY DO I STILL DO THIS WHEN I KNOW I DO THIS?) And on a smaller note: why am I comma impaired?

And now we have the reason why so many writing blogs suggest changing the font when we reread our work for editing errors. To trick our brain. To un-familiarize it from what it has been staring at for weeks, months, and maybe years. To confuse our very smart brains into reading our story a different way and maybe catching those mistakes.

Researchers have studied this, possibly even dedicated a chunk of their lives to understand it. I just had to google them so I could breathe a sigh of relief. Why yes, even years into studying the craft of writing, I will and do still make mistakes when I write. And do you. And that is okay. Our brains are working just as they should when we write story.

Don’t take my word for it: