Skip to main content

Show Your Work

If your math classes were anything like mine, there was one golden rule:  You had to show your work.  When ferreting out the value of x, you couldn't just slap the answer on the page--you had to show each painstaking step of stripping the equation down to the answer.  And sometimes this took line upon college-ruled line.

OK, so math homework could be a little anal.  What does this have to do with writing?

Quite a bit, I'm finding.  I keep reminding myself as I write and revise my current project that I need to show my work to my reader--that the reader doesn't know anything unless I tell them or lead them to discover it.

Writing a story is kind of like knowing the answer to a math problem already.  You know your characters, the plot (well, most of it, anyway...), the conflicts, the ending.  You know the details--why Susan is shy around strangers, why Bob is afraid of spiders, why no one can see the ghost in the attic except for Aunt Bessie.  Some of those details you keep deliberately hidden, of course--that's part of storytelling.  But most details aren't hidden surprises--they're meant to be shared.

Have you ever read a published book or a friend's draft (or, when you're being honest, your own) and been totally thrown by a character's reaction to something?  Or wondered why in the world a character is so prickly about certain topics?  Or just had no idea what to expect out of a character's reaction at any given juncture? When these kinds of reactions aren't meant to surprise us, they take us out of the story in a negative way.  And they're usually the result of the author not showing his or her work.  We need some piece of backstory or some hint at the character's quirks or personality that will explain this odd reaction.  Then, suddenly, what was a weird moment becomes a completely in-character and revealing moment, all because the author showed his or her work.

Even more common--have you ever read a book or draft with a character who's just...blah?  Nothing too exciting, nothing too interesting.  Just plain Jane nothing doing blah.  Now, ten to one the author didn't intend to write a beige character--in his or her head, the character is vibrant scarlet or deep purple or chipper, cheerful yellow.  When the author doesn't show his or her work, the reader doesn't see it.  You have to show the character to the reader--reveal the nuances of how he or she interacts, behaves, reacts, to paint a full and colorful picture.  Otherwise we're left with beige.  I admit, this is a big challenge for me--I see the characters in my mind, I know them, they're awesome.  But I have to find ways of expressing that awesomeness on the page--finding outlets for details and reactions to share what I know with the reader.

The same goes for plot.  If the reader isn't invited along to explore the mystery, or to see the impossibility of climbing the mountain, or to really understand just how much Betty loves Timmy, the story falls flat.  You have to show your work to build up a conflict--the reader can't be expected to assume it's there.  You have to spell things out sometimes--not because your reader is dumb, but because he doesn't live in your head with  you (we hope).

So--take a lesson from algebra and show your work.

Is this as challenging for you as it is for me?  What's your biggest hurdle in showing your work?

Comments

  1. Great post! For me, I always refine too close to the bone. I try to cut out all the fat and often leave what to me seems like the imperative part. But knowing the plot myself, it's hard to see what fellow readers might WANT to see in a story. What to me seems like fat is for them the depth. I think it's important not to edit out so much we leave only the bones. :)

    ReplyDelete

Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

In Which I Finally Get to Say: Orbit is Publishing My Book!

I realize I’ve been a little quiet around here recently.  Moms of toddlers will tell you that it’s when things get quiet in their houses that they know *something* is happening.  With toddlers, silent happenings are usually not a good thing.  In writing? They can be a really awesome thing.
Long story short (when does that ever happen writing novels?): I’m incredibly excited to announce that Orbit will be publishing my novel Torn in spring of 2018—and even more exciting, we’ll be publishing a trilogy! The story follows a seamstress who can embed good luck charms into her creations--and becomes entangled in a revolution.
Obligatory Publisher's Marketplace screenshot--because this little blurb means this is super-duper, 100%, don't bother pinching me official!


Long story less short: Want to have the most exciting day of your career and then sit on the news for months? Then writing and publishing books is for you!  This has been in the works for a while, and though I’ve known for…

Delayed Celebrations and GIVEAWAY!

If there's one thing (pick just one!) that's frustrating about the writing and publishing sphere, it's how often the things you really want to celebrate have to be kept quiet..for ages.  Centuries.  Aeons, even.

Ok, but even a few weeks or months on the silent circuit can feel excruciating when you really want to run around like a toddler on a cookie high with a fistful of sparklers and order MY BOOK IS GOING TO BE A REAL BOOK AND BE PUBLISHED AND STUFF! on a cake.  You maybe haven't quite refined the cake wording yet.
Which is why I've never really blabbed much about how, a year ago today, I got a quick text from my Agent of Awesome to see if I had a minute to chat.  I was at work at work, at a community college writing center, and a minute something I had to scrape up given that it was nearing end-of-semester time and I was neck-deep in papers submitted to the online tutoring portal I managed.
But that minute was going to have to give, because I Just Knew that th…

In Which My Debut Novel Releases

Release dates are weird things.

See, this book has felt "real" to me for a while now.  From seeing pass pages (and marking up pass pages and wow a novel means a STACK and a half of pass pages!)



to getting an ARC of my book, to a box of author copies arriving on my doorstep


to handling REAL ACTUAL copies of MY BOOK for the first time...

I've met my book as a book.  It feels real.  
It's been out there dipping its big toe in the world, too--there have been trade reviews and book blogger's reviews (like this one, this one, and I'm missing quite a few but I'm typing fast here, this one).  People have read my book.

I've had that stop and breathe moment--*PEOPLE have read my BOOK.*

(Whether people liked it or not isn't even registering--people have READ it.)

And all that happens before the book releases into the wild of Amazon, Barnes and Noble, your favorite corner bookshop that's hanging despite the odds.

So what does happen tomorrow? Well...I hav…