Thursday, 9 August 2012

ULTIMATE FORM AND WHY IT DOESN'T WORK

Hi everyone! Thursday again, and I am having Thoughts. Thoughts which I would like to share with you.

This isn't really a coherent argument here, just me pouring out a sequence of quite random reactions to some of the generally accepted writing advice that I've seen bandied about and embraced online, and my inklings as to how accepting that stuff wholesale can result in writing which is...not so good.

It seems as if most people believe that the Ultimate Form (the best and most desirable state) for a YA novel is to be fast-paced, and sparely written, and 'immediate'. It's supposed to put you 'right in the action'. Which obviously can be a great thing for certain kinds of stories in certain genres - and certain kinds of scenes in any book. But I don't think that 'fast-paced' is, or should be, the go-to choice in how to tell *all* stories. I also think that the ways people attempt to create the Ultimate Form can be detrimental to the quality of writing we see in new books, no matter what genre they are.

For a start, I see quite a lot of well-respected sources (agents, editors, writers) blogging about cutting as a kind of panacea for books that aren't 'immediate' and 'fast paced' enough. There's this sense that cutting stuff out is always a good thing, whether it's cutting out adverbs and adjectives, cutting something people call 'filter words', cutting out 'unnecessary' words, cutting out 'unncessary' authorial intrusion. A sense that any and all books can be improved by lessening their extent.

Which makes writers who resist suggested cuts to their work babies at best or unprofessional prima donnas at worst. Which means your editor or agent or critque partner is always right if they think you should cut, and not applying the scalpel forthwith is like letting the side down, failing to rise to the challenge.

But cutting isn't always the answer. Cutting lots of words from a scene (even if many of them are adjectives and adverbs and these 'filter' words that I'm still a bit unsure about) will not necessarily result in something fast paced and immediate. Especially if the scene was not intended to be - or even needed to be - fast paced and immediate. Instead it often results in something that feels bland and lacking in personality, as if it might have been written by the Ultimate Form computer rather than a person. Or worse, sometimes you end up with a scene from which the sense has inexorably disappeared until it's not only hard to understand what is actually being felt or expressed by the characters, but empty of any emotional resonance for the reader.

Why does 'fast paced and immediate' have to be the Ultimate Form in the first place? I think the idea behind creating immediacy and putting the reader right into the action is to create a strong sense of empathy between reader and characters. But there are many, many ways to do that. I worry that a lot of these slightly more subtle, interesting, skillful ways to create empathy and identification between the reader and the characters are being stamped out in the rush to create books which conform to the Ultimate Form.

All writers have - or should have! - different styles. The methods that I employ to create strong empathy between characters and readers are varied. I try to immerse the reader an emotional atmosphere - to show the unique way my point of view character interacts with their world and the other people within it. I try to gradually explain who they are, laying their deepest vulnerabilities open to the reader so that they can see who that character is, flaws and all, and how they came to be that way. I try to create a strong sensory impression in my writing, so that hopefully the reader experiences a ghost of what the character feels and smells and tastes and touches. And I glory in using language to its full extent, searching for imagery and descriptions and similes and metaphors which will create an 'eyeball kick' - that is, a phrase so beautifully expressed that for a moment the reader literally *sees* what I want them to see.

My work is not fast paced at all. I hope that it has immediacy where that is necessary for a scene to resonate, but that is not my primary goal in anything I write. That's just not who I am as a writer, and those are not the stories I want to write. And although my editor certainly asks me to cut as part of the editing process, usually we end up adding more scenes and increasing the word count of my books. Not because I 'write short' as some authors do, and turn in very spare first drafts. Just because cutting is not the only way to improve a book and my editor knows that.

I'm not saying anyone should look at my description of the way I write and try to imitate it. My way is not only way to write or the right way to write - in fact my methods are the merest tiny selection of a myriad of methods. That's the point. I'm still learning, and I'm still making mistakes, and I'm still figuring out which of the myriad of methods work for me and my stories. When I try something ambitious and different and mess up that teaches me a lesson and improves my skills so that next time I either know better than to try it again, or know much better how to go about it. Writing is an art and a craft, and that means it should always be an ongoing process. Each of us has our own unique ways of expressing our ideas, and each of us has a unique take on the ideas that it would be interesting to express, and figuring that out is also part of the process.

But It's very hard to develop such an ongoing process if you're wholly devoted to honing your work to the pinnacle of Ultimate Form instead of honing it to the pinnacle of Ultimate YOU.

Sometimes when I read books, I'll frown over stuff that strikes me as really weird. And as I look at it, all puzzled, I'll realise: this is another case of someone trying so desperately to get to Ultimate Form that they have butchered their own writing to get there.

For instance:

"Never!" John gritted.

He gritted what? His garden path? That piece of dialogue has no connection to the speech tag. 'John gritted', if taken at face value, would conjure up an image of John, as he is speaking, scattering salt/grit crystals. Of course, what the writer actually means is that the character is speaking through gritted teeth. They may even have originally written 'John said through gritted teeth'. Which is a plain, functional sort of speech tag that at least conveys something relevent about what John is doing as he speaks. But then the search for Ultimate Form interfered and it was cut down - probably at first to 'John gritted out' (which isn't great) and finally to 'John gritted' (which is even worse). Not only is it grammatically incorrect and rather silly, but it honestly conveys nothing worth conveying to the reader at all.

I know most readers can most probably work out what the writer intends to say here. But it's rather along the lines that most people can understand my meaning if I type: tihs snetecne is bdlay msipeleld.

Yes, you can figure it out. But as a professional writer, should I really be asking you to?

Similarly, when reading novels with romantic scenes, I've been struck by how many male leads do an odd thing:

John fisted Mary-Beth's hair...

My friends make very rude jokes when they see this sort of thing. But the sadness of it, for me, is that I can see the faint ghost of what this used to be. What it should be: a lovely image, a strong, sensory image, something along the lines of:

John's hands curled into fists in the heavy waves of Mary-Beth's hair...

When you read the second, you can imagine, if you have longish hair, the little tug as those fingers curl up against your scalp, and the way it would tilt your face up, just a little. If you're someone who likes playing with long hair, you can imagine the silky strands winding around your fingers and the way the person you touched would maybe shiver just a little. 

You don't get that from the first description, do you? It's been robbed of its poetry, and its sensory strength and becomes, frankly, a bit laughable.

We also get presented to us as unassailable wisdom: Show, don't tell.

It's a fair enough comment. Some things *must* be shown. Something things are so thrilling or vital or moving that to merely recount them is a tragedy for the story. But not everything. Sometimes telling - whether in plain language or with evocative lyricism, is the best and only thing to do. And tying yourself into a pretzel to avoid it results in craziness like Stephenie Meyer punctuating her main character's suicidal depression over her boyfriend leaving with blank pages with the name of the month on them. She certainly showed us something; but did that showing, at a technical level, create any kind of empathy or connection with her character? Show us the day to day realities of living with suicidal depression? Show us any hint of insight into Bella's world during those months? No, it did not.

Why couldn't she just have told us that for four months Bella barely lived? Barely noticed the passing of time, hardly remembered to eat, couldn't bear to sleep but only just found the strength to force herself out of bed each day? That she wandered through the days with no awareness of anything but longing for her pain to end and the vague wish that maybe, the next day, she wouldn't wake up at all? See how SIMPLE that was?

Following the Show Don't Tell rule leads many writers to go way over the top in how they convey an idea to the reader. Instead of telling us about a character's mood with a simple:

A deep, sucking void seemed to yawn open in Mary-Beth's chest. It hurt so much; she was sure, in that moment, that she would be better off dead. 

And then moving onto the actual crux of the scene, they get stuck showing us everything in excruciating detail. But the thing is? There's no real way to SHOW this emotional reaction. I mean, maybe Mary-Beth gasps, goes pale, staggers back... but those reactions are cliched and don't truly convey the depth of her despair. In order to 'show' how significant this moment is, you have to amp up Mary-Beth's reaction, make it something that can be expressed physically. Thus, you get:

Tears dripped down Mary-Beth's face as she rubbed compulsively at her aching, empty chest. Tiny whimpers fell from her lips and she rocked backward and forward, seeking comfort in the repetitive movement. 

Which immediately turns Mary-Beth from a normal girl experiencing horrible grief into someone who, regardless of her grief, probably needs psychological help if she's to function in normal society.

But even that transformation isn't enough! You see, there are adverbs and adjectives in that description, and that authorial intrusion too, because I'm interpreting Mary-Beth's actions to you! So in order to achieve Ultimate Form we have to revise again - replacing ad/verb/jectives with 'stronger' verbs and nouns to make up for it, and allowing only SHOWING, with no hints from me, the author:

Tears drizzed down Mary-Beth's face as she scrubbed at her chest. Whimpers fell from her lips and she rocked backward and forward.

The impression that Mary-Beth is unhinged is even greater and we have literally no idea what she's feeling anymore, or why she's reacting this way to her grief. The fact is, this isn't a piece of good writing for a novel.

It's an instruction from a screenplay.

As soon as I began to think that way, I realised that a lot of the tenants of Ultimate Form seem to come from the school of good screenwriting. Fast paced? Check. Immediate? Check. No authorial voice-overs? Check. Only show the character's external reactions? Check.

Ultimate Form - ultimately - wants us to write a book that is as much like a screenplay as possible. Dialogue heavy, fast moving, with directions for the actors on how to show the reader what they're feeling. But books are not screenplays and although all forms of writing can improve when they borrow the best techniques from other forms, this inexorable drift toward books which have as little personality and input from the author as possible is resulting in books that are less, much less, than they could be.

The thing is? Books have have the ability to do something films and TV simply can't. Something that every actor and director and screenwriter and music director and make-up and costume and set designer is straining every nerve they have to try to replicate on the screen, but which they can never quite manage.

Books can tell you what's going on inside someone's heart.

Their mind.

Their soul.

That's why they call us story-tellers.

And sacrificing that for the Ultimate Form of a book which reads like a screenplay, with no trace of you as the individual author, and your unique hopes and dreams and fears and ideas, is the last thing any of us should do.

26 comments:

Louisa Reid said...

Great post, I enjoyed this. I always worry about the show don't tell thing, then I look back at 19th Century novels and beyond. There's an awful lot of telling going on and this gives me comfort!

tollykit said...

Wonderful post. It's reassuring to hear someone else push for more description.

But as I'm on a writing course at the moment I have to work to the 'fast-paced' rule at the moment. And I always feel I'm writing at break-neck sped.

Oh for catching your breath once in a while.

Thanks for this it was refreshing.

Zoë Marriott said...

Louisa: Thank you! And there are plenty of successful novels now that have a destinctive voice, and authorial intrustion. I don't know why, if we have to try and fit our words to someone else's template, it should be James Patterson instead of Susanna Clarke...

Tolly: Well, learning how to write in that style is useful. Somethings do work best as fast paced. Not not all things and not necessarily the things they tell you. You have to learn to trust you own judgement, I think.

Deva Fagan said...

Bravo! I've been noticing an abundance of this "ultimate form" and wondering at it myself.

Zoë Marriott said...

Deva: I'm so glad that I'm not the only one! I don't want to write screenplays, you know? There's so much stuff you can do in a novel that you just can't in a screenplay, so why cripple yourself that way? It's all about personal taste anyway.

Kelly said...

Interesting. Do you think this push for Ultimate Form is, in a way, to make it easier to sells books for adaptation to the screen?

(As I noted on Twitter, this push reminds me of the on-going fight between Analytical (US) and Continental philosophers. Analytical philosophers eschew adverbs, adjectives, etc, and move towards almost mathematical language, whereas Continental philosophers still believe in the need for emphasis of emotion in their language.)

Anonymous said...

I completely agree with you. Books draw you in until you know the characters like the back of your hand, whereas in a film you don't get enough time, or information about them, to truly understand what makes them tick. The detail, imagery and description are what makes books special and are what gives some of them such longevity.
It's also why I keep going back and re-reading The Swan Kingdom and Shadows on the Moon.

Zoë Marriott said...

Kelly: I think it's a combination of things. One of which is that, perhaps because there's a lot of sharing work online now, a lot of advice forums where people ask for critque, there's been an over-reaction *against* certain common rookie mistakes that you're likely to see in work posted online, like over-writing, over-use of description, not knowing which scenes to dramatise and which to narrate. But that has caused us, I think, to go too far in the opposite direction - instead of hearing 'watch those adverbs' they hear 'NEVER USE ADVERBS' and so on. Ditto with agents and editors posting about what they like to and want to see: people take advice (like 'I don't like authorial intrusion') as iron-clad and almost cripple themselves to conform. And then because that's what is arriving in slushpiles - and because apparently publishing people prefer this screenplay style to the more florid one, possibly because it needs less editing! - that's what comes out and gets on shelves. So more young writers see that style and think that is the only style. And they go on to produce an even more extreme and exaggerated version of that. Sad, and frustrating!

Q said...

Right now I'm a summer intern reading manuscripts for a literary agent. I remember being totally shocked the first time I read one that was actually too short; I remember sensing distinctly "She was revising this and cut too much out!" It was a turning point for me, because though I never thought that cutting was always the answer, I had never read anything that I knew had been trimmed too far back.

Zoë Marriott said...

Q: That can really happen! So EASILY too, once you're in that 'cut, cut, cut' mindset. At a sentence level it robs the idea you're trying to express of sense, vibrancy, beauty. At the novel level, it basically robs a book of its heart. Such a shame.

Nara said...

I really really do agree with you. I've been thinking about this recently, and the thought struck - why is immediate, strimmed down writing any more proof that you're a 'talented write' than an abundance of gorgeous detail? Tbh, you just have to look back to the classics. JRR Tolkein and Jane Austen were by no means less talented because they tended to include A LOT of description and A LOT of background. It kind of kills the point if you say that writing is an art form and yet you still insist that people conform to the norm. Isn't art an expressive act? A personal and creative one? And doesn't that therefore also mean that art always comes varied, unique and in a multitude of forms?

Emma Pass said...

Fantastic post, Zoe. This is something I've struggled with at times, as I write thrillers, so my writing generally *is* quite filmic and fast paced. I've really had to learn how to get a balance between the punchy, action-y bits and the slower, more atmospheric bits – which, as you say, are just as important! I love reading books which have this balance just right – apart from anything else, too much action with no let-up is exhausting to read!

Rebecca Harwell said...

Thanks for a great post! It's nice to hear the other side of the "cut every single word possible, then cut some more" rule. I find myself weirdly in the center on this. My first drafts tend to be really wordy because I'm talking myself through the action and character reactions, so I say the same thing over and over again six different ways. But things like description don't come naturally to me as a writer, so I have to go back and add those in. Sometimes the word count of draft 2 is bigger than draft 1. Sometimes it's not. But you're completely right. Too many books get too sparse with their words and the reader misses out on some great depth that could have been added.

Zoë Marriott said...

Nara: Someone said on Twitter - what would a modern editor do if they got their hands on LotR? Well, in addition to probably extending it into the LotR Saga (twelve books and counting) I imagine they'd cut everything out of it that we love. Especially the appendices. Your words on art are so exactly right. Yes, there's craft, yes there's learning your skills - but that doesn't mean wringing all individuality out of it.

Emma: Thank you! I was afraid it was a bit rambling (I've been holding this one in for a while) but apparently everyone's willing to let me off! The thing is - all the advice I mention here is GOOD advice. But only in moderation! Just like 'Tell Don't Show' would be a very silly thing to insist on wholesale, so it 'Show Don't Tell'. I'm sure you've got the balance right :)

Rebecca: It's a bit like wildflowers and weeds, I reckon. They're actually the exact same thing. The only difference between them - the only thing that makes a weed a weed - is a weed is growing somewhere the gardener doesn't want it. Same with adverbs, authorial intrusion, telling... they have beauty and value, used properly and in the right place.

Isabel said...

I agree with your point! I don't understand how it's possible to *always* show, even when you're trying to be as concise and immediate as possible.

Rebecca Lindsay said...

Great post! I completely agree with all of your points. Like you said, all the poetry and life is being taken out of "Ultimate Form" books.
The Mary-Beth part was quite useful to see. Because I'm still on my first draft I sometimes see myself telling instead of showing, like in that example. I don't realise I'm doing it until I look back over the last two pages I've written. That must be what second, third, fourth and fifth drafts are for, to fix those kind of mistakes.

P.S, I finally got the chance to start Frostfire, today. I love it so far. I'm already torn between the two guys :D

Alessandra @Out of the Blue said...

What bothers me as a reader is when narrators TELL me something about the character while SHOWING me something that contradicts it. I'm not talking about unreliable narrators, which can be excellent if done right. I'm talking about, for example, a heroine described as bad-ass killer who whines about trivial things.

To me, some telling is fine, as long as I don't have to suspend disbelief.

sarah said...

So refreshing to read such a common sense article on this subject. And although that comment sounds like something a spambot would say, I did mean it! I am so tired of all the black-and-white advice out there. As if the craft of writing can be simplified into a checklist any idiot can follow.

Zoë Marriott said...

Isabel: I got into such a stew trying to show EVERYTHING in Shadows that I got stuck for nearly 18mnths. That was one of the few times that my editor has said to me 'We need to cut this down'. Letting that piece of advice go was definitely painless!

Rebecca: *Evil Laughter* Well, it's only right you should be torn between them - I was! Anyway, yes, it's important to be able to see that difference between showing and telling so that you can make wise choices on what to show and what to narrate. That's the way to get the balance right.

Alessandra: Seems to me in that case, it's actually the showing that's at fault, rather than the telling! The author really WANTS their character to be badass, but lacks the skill to back that up. Bella in Twilight, for example, constantly says how bad a liar she is and how much she hates not telling the truth, and yet her first reaction in every sitauation IS TO DECEIVE PEOPLE - and she fools everyone. So much for being a bad liar. She states that she always talks to her mum about everything, but then reveals by her actions that this isn't true - her emails and phonecalls to her mother are patronising and untruthful right from the start. Basically, this is a case of bad writing, which throws away the virtues of both showing AND telling, and gives us the impression that the character is a sociopath!

Sarah: That checklist mentality! I see it everywhere, and I think it's so depressing. Ten Rules to Land An Agent, Five Things That Make Agents Stop Reading, Twenty Things Every Writer Must Do. Blergh. You might as well paint by numbers.

Alessandra @Out of the Blue said...

Yes, that's what I was trying to say. I do agree with you. Sorry I couldn't express myself more clearly. When showing and telling contradict each other, readers (or at least, readers who pay attention) will believe what they're shown, not what they're told (actual "proof" vs character's claims). So it all becomes confusing, frustrating, or just plain crazy.

Elyndra said...

I sometimes get so very tired of all the advice you are supposed to follow. I am trying to finish my first full length story and, like many, I first went looking for some advice. That turned out to be a bad idea. I didn’t write a thing for a month, so paralysed by everything I was obviously doing wrong. There are so many things you can’t do or are supposed to do that it makes my head spin.
I can’t even work with half of the advice given. I don’t outline, I can’t. I’m what they call a pantser over at NaNo and I found that a lot of the so called rules only work if you do plan ahead.
That’s why, for now at least, I’m just winging it. I’m probably breaking every rule in the book and I wouldn’t even know. I just can’t tell a story if I’m worrying about not doing it right. I don’t need to give my inner critic even more ammunition against me than he already has.

Zoë Marriott said...

Elyndra: That's the only way to be! Personally I think that when you're drafting (even if you're a planner, which I am) you need to leave any considerations of technique and should and would at the door. That's the point of drafting; you're supposed to try different things, make mistakes, get into a mess. The inner critic only needs to come out once you've finished and are editing and revising!

Megha said...

What I love about your blog is that you always write what's true! This is a great post, Zoe. You CANNOT define YA - or try to turn it into - fast paced books only. One of the greatest things about the YA genre, one of the things everyone loves is that there are no boundaries! By putting so many exceptions onto YA, it just kills the genre. I might enjoy fast paced books, but there are so many books I *adore* which are not very fast paced at all! Like your books, I love them in their forms as they already are.

People are always going on about description and emotion in your writing, why do they also want to make everything so short and dead? BUT WE SHALL REBEL! XD No but seriously, publishers, WE LOVE DESCRIPTION: YA DOES NOT EQUAL FAST PACED BOOKS!

;) Great post Zoe

Zoë Marriott said...

Megha: I try my best! And yes, I think you're absolutely right. That's why so many people, of all ages, love YA so much. Because there's so much within that category, because genres are fluid and you can try anything you like so long as you make it WORK. The last thing we ought to be doing is getting in the way of that by narrowing down the definition of what YA should be. Many of my favourite YA novels are by no means fast paced, sparely written or short or adverbs and adjectives! Many of them make very good use of telling, too. So THERE, doubters!

whispering words said...

This is a brilliant post Zoe! I have to agree, so many books these day feel so emotionless and brittle.

Also all this show - dont tell advice really has affected my own writing. I feel bad now if I even have the word 'was' in my sentence as I won a critique once that advised me 'was' makes sentences passive when a story should always be active. However after reading this I feel much better about throwing in a few more 'was's - along with a bunch of adjectives and adverbs back into my story :)

Thanks Zoe for always giving such great advice!

Zoë Marriott said...

Whispering: OMG that drives me INSANE. That whole 'oh, was is the devil! It's evil! It's *passive*!' thing is just pure nonsense. It doesn't even make sense grammatically - it seems to me it's grown up out of people who honestly have no idea what the technical passive voice is and WHY WE HAVE TO USE IT in order for things to make sense in the freaking English language. Gah! Pay no attention to that critique. I'm serious. Any critique which would tell you that poor inoffensive 'was' is unacceptible most likely has very little value.

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