Open Mic: What we've learned & By-the-ways

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Editing for authors: because every writer needs a good editor.

Ari Meermans

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Remember when I wrote that there is a tremendous amount of knowledge represented on AW just waiting for the right question, asked in just the right way? No? How about the part where each of you has a story to tell? Oh, okay. Well, it was here:

. . . And that set me to thinking about the nature of roundtable discussions and the sheer volume of knowledge represented here just waiting for the right question, asked in just the right way. I'm mulling over a couple of ideas for bringing out that high-level writing knowledge and experience to benefit all our fellow AWers without having to wait for that just-right question. Each of you has a story to tell about how you learned to master an aspect or portion of the craft of writing—your own Eureka! moment—and those stories have incredible value.

That just-right question may never be asked and that would be such a loss. Open Mic in Roundtable is about that Eureka! moment. You had asked questions, you devoured articles and books on writing, but something wasn't clicking. Then, somehow and maybe in a funny sort of way, it finally did click. It could have been what everyone who seemed to be in the know meant by "show, don't tell" or "head hopping" or, really, it could have been any one of a hundred things. You might have been writing or tossing a frisbee to your dog or were in the shower. Whenever or wherever it was, that frustratingly elusive aspect of the craft suddenly made sense, and it made sense in a way you could use right away. It was exciting and you wanted to buttonhole everyone you met to tell them your discovery.

Tell us.

What was it and how did you finally 'get it'?
 

Ari Meermans

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There are two things that are my own writing bugaboos: “show, don’t tell” and stories that fizzle out. We’re scheduled to talk about fizzled endings on Tuesday, so I’ll tell you about my own Eureka! moment regarding “show, don’t tell.”

I’ve always intuitively understood the concept of “show, don’t tell,” but as with so many other things in life, it was the how that got me. How does one translate those sensory and descriptive elements onto the page? How does one select only the necessary information for immersing the reader in the story? Examples didn’t help because I already knew it when I saw it. And it wasn’t completely a matter of finding the right words. It’s a feeling, a mood, or a sense of place that I had to capture—made more difficult because I wasn’t experiencing it myself in the moment in which I was writing and I didn’t know where to find it.

The day it came to me was a mild, sunny day in the fall. We had nine large pecan trees scattered about our three-quarter acre backyard at our old house and I was out picking pecans. I was alone with my two dogs and I was pondering the whole of life, which I’m prone to do, while I was almost mindlessly picking up pecans. (That right there was the key to my problem, if you haven’t guessed it.) Then, the dogs started barking their fool heads off at the fence down at the other end of the property. I straightened and turned to see what they were making such a racket over. It was a cat calmly traversing the field beyond our fence, seemingly ignoring the dogs as the neighborhood cats were wont to do. I began to notice things: the gentle breeze on my face, far off sounds of traffic, and the barest hint of wood smoke in the air. And that’s when it hit me. I had to be present in every experience. I wasn’t observant enough and I certainly wasn’t consciously cataloging those moments. I realized then that the well has to be filled before you can draw from it.

As you can see, I still have big problems with showing and that’s because I’m still trying to fill the well.

So, what was your Eureka! moment and what aspect of writing was it about? Anyone?
 

CathleenT

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Hmm...not sure this qualifies, but I'll give it a go.

I used to overdraft hideously, but from the opposite reason as Ari. I lived these stories and just wrote down everything that was happening. They were vivid, but they crawled. It was too much of a good thing. And I had no idea how to fix it.

It took several beta swaps, but finally I started to see the difference between world-building elements or events that were just details and those that advanced the story. Every word needs to advance the story in some fashion, whether it's plot, character development, helping the reader to picture the scene, what have you. Because it happened is not enough. It has to happen for a reason. All the rest can be cut, even if it contains some lovely writing. And really, that should be a source of hope. Even my outtakes had some promise. This is a good thing. But there was no need to hold onto it. It was just draft stuff to keep it clear in my head.

Now I can crit my own work or that of others, and the phrase, "Nope, that's just draft stuff," crosses my mind. It's something the writer needed to know to write the story, but it wasn't anything the reader needs to enjoy it.

It's a small epiphany, but one that was significant to me. :)
 

ElaineA

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Mine is so mundane. I am almost positive that every one of my Eureka! moments have come at the hands of critiquers. The first story I ever wrote that was seen by other eyes (I was 7), I used a super-fancy-OMG IBM Selectric typewriter at my mom's office one Saturday to type a 1-page story, then I took the page to the OMG-SO-KEWL-giant-copy-machine and made a copy. But I left the original on the glass. Monday evening my mom came home from work very agitated at me. One of the secretaries had found the page on the copier and immediately recognized the "witch" in the story as one of the other employees at the office. She brought it to my mom's attention because, of course, I had typed "By Elaine" on the story :). There was one secretary there who, for whatever reason, scared me. She was stern and had long gray hair and--well, whatever...I turned her into a witch in a story. My mom, being the manager, was freaked that had the woman herself seen the story it would have been bad-bad-bad. Anyway, that was the first moment I knew I could effectively communicate through writing. Definitely Eureka!

Many other eureka moments since then at the hands of critiquers and beta readers. I don't really have great self-awareness of what I'm doing wrong or right while I'm writing. I absolutely need external feedback to allow me to see both the good and the bad. Those moments often feel like revelations. I've learned just about everything about my writing that way (even though perfectionist me has hated sharing my work most of my life) and am able to use those reveals to better my work.
 

Cindyt

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Hmm...not sure this qualifies, but I'll give it a go.

I used to overdraft hideously, but from the opposite reason as Ari. I lived these stories and just wrote down everything that was happening. They were vivid, but they crawled. It was too much of a good thing. And I had no idea how to fix it.

It took several beta swaps, but finally I started to see the difference between world-building elements or events that were just details and those that advanced the story. Every word needs to advance the story in some fashion, whether it's plot, character development, helping the reader to picture the scene, what have you. Because it happened is not enough. It has to happen for a reason. All the rest can be cut, even if it contains some lovely writing. And really, that should be a source of hope. Even my outtakes had some promise. This is a good thing. But there was no need to hold onto it. It was just draft stuff to keep it clear in my head.

Now I can crit my own work or that of others, and the phrase, "Nope, that's just draft stuff," crosses my mind. It's something the writer needed to know to write the story, but it wasn't anything the reader needs to enjoy it.

It's a small epiphany, but one that was significant to me. :)
This is what I do. I have pages and pages of 18th century research, but use just a fraction of it for all the reasons you mentioned. Otherwise it's a history lesson.
 

DancingMaenid

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The big eureka thing for me right now is that I think I'm finally getting the sense of the difference between a draft that can be improved upon and a draft that's just, well, a mess.

I remember years ago, I posted a thread (I'm pretty sure on here) asking if it was really normal to have to rewrite everything all the time. A couple people told me that yes, this was an essential part of writing, but I think they weren't really getting what I meant by "re-writing." I wasn't talking about standard revision, or writing a few parts because you came up with a better idea. I was talking about having to scrap the entire draft because nothing worked. I can deal with that happening occasionally, but for every project? No. Way too discouraging and maddening.

Now I'm working on a novel, and I'm aware that it's not perfect and that my first couple chapters will probably need to be fleshed-out more. But I feel like it's within my power to improve it, and that's such a wonderful feeling. Even if I end up cutting/rewriting some scenes because I change part of the plot, I feel like this story has a strong enough skeleton that I can do that without having to start from scratch.

I was looking at some old drafts I wrote in my teens, and it's so clear to me now that yeah, those stories just weren't going anywhere. I had no coherent plot or characterization to work with. I beat myself up so much at the time for not finishing stuff, but those stories were a mess. Reading them now, I can't even get a sense of what the plots were supposed to be.
 

Old Hack

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The day it came to me was a mild, sunny day in the fall. We had nine large pecan trees scattered about our three-quarter acre backyard at our old house and I was out picking pecans. I was alone with my two dogs and I was pondering the whole of life, which I’m prone to do, while I was almost mindlessly picking up pecans. (That right there was the key to my problem, if you haven’t guessed it.) Then, the dogs started barking their fool heads off at the fence down at the other end of the property. I straightened and turned to see what they were making such a racket over. It was a cat calmly traversing the field beyond our fence, seemingly ignoring the dogs as the neighborhood cats were wont to do. I began to notice things: the gentle breeze on my face, far off sounds of traffic, and the barest hint of wood smoke in the air. And that’s when it hit me. I had to be present in every experience. I wasn’t observant enough and I certainly wasn’t consciously cataloging those moments. I realized then that the well has to be filled before you can draw from it.

Ari, this is such a great story, and you're so right. The well has to be filled.

Every word needs to advance the story in some fashion, whether it's plot, character development, helping the reader to picture the scene, what have you. Because it happened is not enough. It has to happen for a reason. All the rest can be cut, even if it contains some lovely writing. And really, that should be a source of hope. Even my outtakes had some promise. This is a good thing. But there was no need to hold onto it. It was just draft stuff to keep it clear in my head.

I had a huge moment like this, years ago. I'd submitted a short story to a magazine I really wanted to get into, and the editor sent it back and said he would love to publish a pared-down version of it. He'd marked it up, and given me copious editorial comments (almost as long as the story!), and it was incredibly helpful, as well as incredibly painful. But he was right. The story was much improved by his cuts, as he took out all the parts which didn't help the story, no matter how well-written they were.

I used to find all criticism really upsetting and painful. But then I read a piece which pointed out that criticism is of the work, not of the person who wrote it; and that even when critiques are wrong, or too personal, they might give clues to the problems in the work. And ever since then I've found critiques--even strong ones--easier to take. I now even look forward to feedback. It helps.

Great thread, Ari.
 

Williebee

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I have a small "eureka" that took for-freakin-ever for me to notice. I've been a fan of Robert Parker since high school. I own probably several copies of all of the Spenser books, for example. I've given a dozen of them away as gifts at one time or another. It wasn't until I'd been writing for about five years that I noticed and understood how he communicated the passage of time.

In conversations between characters, for example, "paused" or "he thought about it" doesn't show up. Instead, Parker gave us brief descriptions of scenery or some adjacent action that the character observes. It's only enough to convey some deliberation or consideration. And it gives us setting and description without it being an info dump. Instead, the descriptions reinforce the weight (or lack thereof) of the conversation. Then he resumed the dialogue. The weight and tone of the words spoken by the characters convey the depth of thought that went on during those observations, and hold the overall rhythm of the passage together.

It wasn't just about time being related in a not boring manner (no matter how briefly). It was also that awareness that scene supports/reinforces characters and story rather than the other way around.
 
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ElaineA

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Instead, Parker gave us brief descriptions of scenery or some adjacent action that the character observes. It's only enough to convey some deliberation or consideration. And it gives us setting and description without it being an info dump. Instead, the descriptions reinforce the weight (or lack thereof) of the conversation. Then he resumed the dialogue. The weight and tone of the words spoken by the characters convey the depth of thought that went on during those observations, and hold the overall rhythm of the passage together.

It wasn't just about time being related in a not boring manner (no matter how briefly). It was also that awareness that scene supports/reinforces characters and story rather than the other way around.

This is such a wonderful, subtle technique. And highly effective in a detective novel, where the storytelling is usually aided by spare prose. I have such admiration for writers who can make every phrase or sentence do double, triple duty. It takes a craft genius to do that so well it passes unnoticed by the reader until the eureka.
 

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I have a problem with depicting emotions in my stories. I'm personally not a very demonstrative person, so it makes sense this is a big weak area of mine. How do I get my characters' emotions across without saying it point blank? How do I SHOW it? I don't remember how I discovered this, but I tried it, posted some of my lines, and got a lot of favorable reactions to it, so hope it means it's working.

So what is it I do to convey emotions without outright saying what it is? I imagine myself trying to describe it to a person who is not a good English speaker, someone who needs the definition of the emotion, and I am not able to translate it into their language, so I have to describe it to them using other English words. For instance, sadness. What if they're trying to understand what sadness is? It's your heart feeling heavy, when your skies are gray despite it being sunny outside, when the tears are flowing down your face faster than you can wipe them away, when you want to just drink yourself into oblivion.

Blah, blah, blah. Something like that.
 

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I had a huge moment like this, years ago. I'd submitted a short story to a magazine I really wanted to get into, and the editor sent it back and said he would love to publish a pared-down version of it. He'd marked it up, and given me copious editorial comments (almost as long as the story!), and it was incredibly helpful, as well as incredibly painful. But he was right. The story was much improved by his cuts, as he took out all the parts which didn't help the story, no matter how well-written they were.

I used to find all criticism really upsetting and painful. But then I read a piece which pointed out that criticism is of the work, not of the person who wrote it; and that even when critiques are wrong, or too personal, they might give clues to the problems in the work. And ever since then I've found critiques--even strong ones--easier to take. I now even look forward to feedback. It helps.

Great thread, Ari.

I had a moment like that:

There was a call for a 'monster as protagonist' story. I had a story that would fit the bill as a standalone prologue in a trunked novel. The challenge had a cut-off length of 1500 words, but the story was a bit longer. So I began to cut (and reshape for context).

It turned out I could say in 1500 what I was saying in 1750-2000. I was absolutely hooked on flash fiction/stringent word counts for a year and it did me so much good as a novelist when I sat down to write my current WIP.
 

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I had two last night and remember passing by this thread during some research, so I wanted to share.

Currently, I'm editing a manuscript my co-authors and I wrote. We've come across the phrase "filter words" and found a list of common ones. We didn't quite understand, so we started just replacing the common filter words with other words. As I now know, those were just filter words as well. While editing last night, I was growing concerned by how often the characters names are referenced. So, I popped online (which brought me straight to AW) and came across the phrase "burly detective syndrome." Oh boy, were we caught in that. How often we referred to the MC's as "the young prince" or "the eldest prince." I was freaking out, thinking now the names are definitely going to get repetitive. But I came to terms with it as someone explained in the thread I was reading that you can get rid of that problem by disposing of filter words and gave example that just did it for me.

So now instead of (underlining not in manuscript):

"The young prince thought his father could get stuffed."

It's now:

"For all Alex cared, his father could get stuffed."

Not my most favorite example of removing filter words from the manuscript so far, but the quickest one I found with the "burly detective syndrome." A better strictly filter example is (underlining of the filter words not in manuscript):

"He peered through the narrow opening and saw a man in reflective armor leaning against the stone wall of the castle."

To:

"Through the door’s narrow opening was a Royal Knight of Camelot in full armor that gleamed in the torchlight."

Seriously, this killed two birds with one stone. I'm thrilled with how it is shaping the manuscript into an easier, better read. And getting rid of the syndrome and filter words are cutting down on word count which we need. So make that three birds, one stone. I swear we don't have anything against birds. Anyway, thank you for having a place to share this. Eureka! moments don't come often, but it's wonderful to share.
 

Ari Meermans

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It's true, BCAlexander, that they don't come often, but each of us has at least one or two. It's so helpful when they are shared; I've learned quite a bit in these few short posts.
 

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Oh, oh, I have one! I didn't post it because I hadn't seen this thread (wasn't here when I took a break from AW, I don't think) so I didn't know where to put it.

I think it was on this forum that I posted complaining I never seemed to need to edit my fanfictions--I read through the chapter before I post it, but that's it. The only time I've gone back and started over was because I was writing in an almost entirely original world and it wasn't until chapter five that I knew what the world looked like, much less the plot of the fic. I couldn't figure out why it was that I could do that with my fanfictions, but when I wrote original works, I needed extensive rewrites and edits. Someone suggested, at the time, that I treat my original writing like fanfiction. I couldn't figure out what that meant or what it would look like, until a few days ago when I realized why my fanfiction works but my original novels don't.

The characters I use in fanfiction, no matter how much I love them, are not my darlings.


I had this horrible habit of treating every original MC like my firstborn child. I wanted to wrap them in swaddling clothes and tuck them in bed and never, ever let them get hurt. And just like my firstborn child, they ran around doing whatever I didn't think they'd do behind my back. Fanfictions? Not a problem. By the time I sit down and start writing, I've devoured the entire canon they're from, I've read other fanfictions, I've probably even roleplayed as the characters. And because they're not mine, I torment them. They are not my beloved children, they are my stress-relief surrogates. Plans go to pieces at the last minute. Lies get found out, people blame themselves for what isn't their fault and blame other people for what is. There's awkwardness and embarrassment and tears and falling apart and breakups and makeups and gritty, bittersweet life.

It hit me when I stumbled on one of my old abandoned first drafts and remembered that Hayden got migraines. And was instantly hit with an image of her in an MRI machine, fighting claustrophobia while her father practiced the speech he'd give when he announced he was running for president. Followed by Caleb--no longer a badass runaway assassin with fuzzy motives but a struggling older brother who's lost control of his powers and is watching his surrogate little sister get assigned a mission that could ruin her. I'm not afraid to make life hard for them anymore--and I know them well enough that if they want to turn left and I want them to turn right, I know how high to put the wall to stop them climbing over.

Oh yeah. "Murder your darlings" means something completely different now. Murder them--and embarrass them, make them cry, take away their toys and break them...
 

Ari Meermans

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By the way—

Tor.com has several interesting articles up today. My three recs:

Who Are the Forgotten Greats of Science Fiction? by James Davis Nicoll. (Have you read any of these authors? Anyone you want to add to the list?)

Bullet Journaling as a Fantasy Writer, by Jenn Lyons. (Maybe file this one under "tools to try", if you haven't already.)

The Power of Cleverness and Research: German Fairy Tale "Rumpelstiltskin", by Mari Ness. (Probably the most original breakdown of this fairy tale I've seen to date and my favorite of the three articles.)
 

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Tor.com has several interesting articles up today. My three recs:

Who Are the Forgotten Greats of Science Fiction? by James Davis Nicoll. (Have you read any of these authors? Anyone you want to add to the list?)

Bullet Journaling as a Fantasy Writer, by Jenn Lyons. (Maybe file this one under "tools to try", if you haven't already.)

I've been using a modified bullet journal for a while (mine's very messy). There's this on AW about Bullet Journals for Writers. And a forum thread too.

Ari Meermans;10454384[URL="https://www.tor.com/2018/08/30/the-power-of-cleverness-and-research-german-fairy-tale-rumpelstiltskin/?utm_source=exacttarget&utm_medium=newsletter&utm_term=tordotcom-tordotcomnewsletter&utm_content=na-readblog-blogpost&utm_campaign=tor" said:
The Power of Cleverness and Research: German Fairy Tale "Rumpelstiltskin"[/URL], by Mari Ness. (Probably the most original breakdown of this fairy tale I've seen to date and my favorite of the three articles.)

I'll have to take a look. I finished Naomi Novik's Spinning Silver, a new take on an old tale a couple of weeks ago and enjoyed it. *

* AW Amazon affiliate link
 

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