On the footsteps of my post regarding “show don’t tell” I’m now thinking about another truism for the novice writer. It’s short, sweet and therefore easy to remember, expressed here via the Whims iPhone app.
Your poem should sound like natural, yet notable, speech. If it’s a clunky string of adjectives you’ve still got revising to do. As with all good advice, it’s easier to give than to follow, but I’m thoroughly enjoying the effort and the WRIT 100 journey.
Thus far the aspect of WRIT 100 that I’ve found most challenging is unpacking the writers’ cliche – “show don’t tell”. The expression inadequately summarizes a set of common issues that create bland writing. Below I break out 4 axioms that I’m actively practicing in an attempt to conquer my first year writing course.
Use Details to Allude to Depth
I love abstractions. My innate interest is in what people think and feel, not necessarily the details of what they look like, say or do. My typical inclination is to go right there. “Jonathan wrestled with the decision before him”. Look at me using an active verb to delve into the depths of Jonathan’s psyche… brilliant! Sadly it’s not so easy.
In order to engage your audience you need to paint a picture with your words, which alludes to what’s happening behind the scene, enabling them to imagine the depth for themselves. This depth is the home of the greater truth, the resonance, the unspoken “meaning”. This is generally what’s meant by “show don’t tell”. Yet the expression is deceptive because you don’t indiscriminately show everything. An attempt to paint all the possible details will befuddle. You must be frugal, discerning and fresh with your words.
Write exactly what you mean with the fewest possible words. Be specific, as opposed to generic, and concrete, as opposed to abstract. Yet be sparing with the quantity of words.
There is a hierarchy of power within words descending from verbs, nouns, adjectives to adverbs. Use verbs and nouns, but unless necessary limit yourself to one concrete specific adjective per noun. Attempt to eliminate adverbs altogether by being exact in your verb choice (except in drama). Applying this guidance will help you contain your word count. It will also encourage you to be discerning in your word choice.
Choose exactly the right word… every time. Does it mean exactly what you mean? Does it intentionally riff on something hidden in the depths? Does it possess the right sound? If not is there a better word? If not is this sentence necessary? What are you trying to allude to? What new sentence can help you get there?
Avoid common expressions. They are too easy to interpret and therefore fail to engage the audience’s imagination. Where appropriate attempt to describe ordinary things in fresh ways. For example if the sparks are symbolic in your work, don’t just write “sparks”, bring imaginative words to bear to paint the picture. Make your audience think about them in ways they never thought they would, employ vivid details that waltz.
As you know one of my implicit and poetic New Year’s resolutions was to get serious about writing… practice the art, improve my abilities and create. It’s a multi-front undertaking about blogging, school, journalling and because I am a ridiculously enthusiastic individual, it is also about writing a great Canadian novel.
The subject of the novel is super secret but it’s starting out as a piece of creative non-fiction, which means research, organization, time-lining, outlining and other structural undertakings. I like this as it plays to my professional background – a project manager. However it quickly starts to get messy in a regular word processor. You quickly arrive in a situation where you have multiple word documents such as an outline and a draft that need to be kept up to date separately, not to mention the meshed network of file folders for research, notes, drafts and other related files. So this got me thinking, there must be an app for this… and sure enough courtesy of Apple’s OS X App store I found Scrivener, and it is perfectly tailored for the job. The price tag was a little disconcerting at first at $44.99 so I headed over to the developers website to see if they had a demo and they did…
After installing the demo and reviewing some instructional material including a very helpful video, I started importing over all of my miscellaneous files into the Scrivener app. That done I felt at home in my very well organized virtual writing studio, so I purchased a version through the app store, and I’m happy to report that the upgrade from the demo to the app through Apple was seamless. My work was not disrupted, my files were not corrupted. Since then I’ve even penned the first page of my opus.
Watch out world! Mr Campbell and his partner Dr. Scrivener are on the case.
One of the things not explicitly captured by my SMART New Year’s resolutions was my desire to get more serious about writing. In my next post I will dissect why this overarching desire was absent and present an artful solution. In the meantime I’d like to announce a new practice which I’m adopting – Journalling… As it turns out there is an App for that and it’s called DayOne. I’m very excited about cultivating an ongoing monologue with DayOne. So far my impressions of the $10 app are very very positive. To give you a little glimpse into this private relationship I share with you my inaugural DayOne entry. Good Writing!
“A new year lies ahead, and while I used the SMART principle to create a list of practical to do’s on my blog, at a higher more general level I am interested in pursuing writing with a professional rigour this year. In that light I supposed it would be wise to start journalling as well… this being a nod of recognition to the “practice makes perfect” proverb.
Why maintain a public blog and a private e-journal? In my blog I practice writing with the intention of pleasing others as well as myself. Here I shall write just for the sake of writing with no particular goal in mind… other than to practice the art.
In years gone by I have started and stopped different journalling efforts. I find that my journals from years past read like weepy Shakespearian love treatises and inevitably looking back at journals of yesteryear is a depressing activity for me. So why do it? Previously I answered that question with – don’t do it. But now I divine a new answer which is – do it for the practice. If you don’t want to sound like a moony love sick puppy then don’t. Write about something else, anything else, write about nothing. But for the love of god don’t write poetry about some girl you won’t remember in a years time. Here ends my lecture to my younger self on the critical points of journalling. Wisdom is a gift.
One of my practical to do’s on my public blog was to join the Victoria Writing Society and attend the quarterly general meeting today. That will be the first of my New Year’s resolutions to be delayed. I’m still fighting a miserable cold that encroached ruthlessly on this year’s winter vacation. Gesundheit.
So with a new intuition to start journalling I perused the Mac App store as I was sure there must be an app for that, and here I found DayOne to fill the “need”. So far so good, however it would really benefit from full screen mode. I see from the developer notes they are working on it… well godspeed to you gentlemen; many an aspiring writer depends on it I’m sure.
So with my new app installed on my relatively new MacBook Air I will come to this “space” to write about nothing in particular in a relatively free flowing manner. An exercise that Richard Rhodes was a little terse about in his wonderful book “How to Write”. Alas! Sometimes the collective wisdom of the world is in dissonance and you just have to let intuition, serendipity, and your super conscious lead you… and so I shall, and so I have and so I write here my first entry in my very own private instance of DayOne…”