We drove out of Texas yesterday. The sun hung high above us, chasing our Cherokee across coastline roads en-route to Louisiana, through the flyovers and hot concrete of Houston, onward towards the swamps of the Mississippi coast.
All morning our little one, Muffin, asked in a plaintive voice reserved for two year-olds and hurricane victims: "Where's our house?"
We offered an explanation in civil tones--we were moving to Sicily--but she would not be consoled. At one point, it looked as if she might cry.
By late afternoon, we crossed over into the Bayou state, pressing on until the placid expanse of freeway gave way to the quaint, antidiluvian manors and cottages of Lafayette. We had dinner with one of Furnacegirl's friends, then stood outside the restaurant for what seemed like an hour, hastening to catch a flash of lightning from a distant summer storm, watching the gumdrop sun float down through mists over the fields, like an eggyolk soaking into white cotton.
I have a feeling we'll keep catching ourselves looking West for some time to come.
This morning we pack. The road to Montgomery beckons. It promises to be a good day, so I leave you with this old John Denver favorite of mine and hope that wherever you are, it feels like home.
I am up for air after two weeks going through the ground school ringer. I feel smart(er) on flying this new aircraft, and this week, the movers are busy as bees depositing our various belongings in boxes for our move to Sicily. Quite obviously, the blog has suffered, but I am anxious to get back to a more regular routine. I thank you all for your patience and promise that things will return to normal again soon.
As I am getting back in the groove, Lola's post reminded me of a breakthrough I had last year which, for all intents and purposes, launched me on the current writer's trajectory I am on now. And it dealt with showing vs. telling.
Her post does a much better job of describing the "how" of showing vs. telling than I ever could. But my breakthrough came when I read an article that explained the "why" behind the showing vs. telling rule. I read this fantastic article by Alexander Chee, and the following quote swept through my synapses like a Texas cyclone, clearing away all the old detritus that kept me from realizing what I'd been missing all along:
If you’re doing your job, the reader feels what you felt. You don’t have to tell the reader how to feel. No one likes to be told how to feel about something. And if you doubt that, just go ahead. Try and tell someone how to feel.In short, nothing has been the same since.
You see, when you tell instead of show, the sin you commit is to essentially act like a referee or TV announcer who stands between the characters in your story and the reader and says: "OK. That's out of bounds. OK. He just scored. OK. She's now twenty points behind."
If you effectively show, then there's no offending emcee. The reader sees the scene--but far more importantly, the reader is allowed to interpret the scene. In my humble opinion, that is the reason why showing is so critical to good writing. This a good recipe for keeping readers engaged. Show a scene, trust your reader to understand it, and they'll learn to love you for it.
What are some of your tips and tricks that help you with showing instead of telling? What the was the source of a recent writing breakthrough?
I heard about this for the first time today--although he died in December--and it both saddened and amazed me.
You can find a complete list of his awards and decorations here.
Does anyone else find it ironic that the media spends weeks reporting on topics like the death of Michael Jackson, but guys like this barely get mentioned?
Unfortunately, I still have my nose buried in ground school books this week. I didn't have time to finish the piece I had originally planned for Roni's Let's Talk Blogfest, so I am substituting. I put up "Love Is Blind" once before, but some of you might not have seen it yet--so enjoy! You can check out all the other entries here.
Have a great week everyone, and I'll be back around when I have a chance to catch my breath this weekend. Happy reading!
Love Is Blind
(c) 2010 Jon Paul
The minute I heard her voice, I gave Phillip a nudge. “Who’s that?”
“By the kitchen?” he asked.
“No, over near the living room window.”
“Ahh. You sly dog, you.” The party wasn't loud, so he leaned in and whispered to me in a conspiratorial manner. "You have good ears, my friend. That's Sloan Brady. Lawyer. Boston College grad. Intelligent, great sense of humor, but...I don't know...."
"She's a bit of a handfull."
"Well, you know. I was thinking about Sarah and stuff."
I could hear the tentativeness in Phillips voice. It had been a year since Sarah left me, walking out one Tuesday morning after breakfast, sending me a breakup text that afternoon. A week later, the moving guys showed up to get her stuff. She never told me why it was over, but I thought I knew the reason.
The birthday party had been Phillip's idea. Get you out of your shell, he'd said. Meet a new girl. At the time I had agreed; maybe I was ready for something new, but now that it was time to step up to the plate, I wasn't so sure.
Phillip laughed. I bet the look on my face told him exactly what I was thinking. "You want I should introduce you two?"
"Do you think she'll have a problem with--"
"I think there's only one way to find out."
I took a drag of my beer. "What's she like?"
"Well, you know. She is a woman. But...well. Maybe she'd be too much for you."
"Too much? What does that mean?"
"You know. Like you couldn't keep up with her. She's too smart, too witty. You're getting slow in your old age after all."
"Funny, I thought it was graceful."
Phillip chuckled. "Naw. Just slow."
"The problem is I can't figure women out. I always think--"
"Dude, I know. I know. We've been over this ground a hundred times. But you gotta pull the trigger sooner or later."
"Yeah, I just wonder if now is the right time, when--"
"Look, I don't care. You want me to ask her over or not?"
I thought about it. It was now or never, right?
"Right. One hot lawyer introduction, coming up." Phillip walked away.
I leaned against the wall and took a measured breath. I wasn't nervous; rather the need to relax before any first time run-in with a member of the opposite sex was an old reflex, operating in the same mental space as tying my shoes or straightening my tie before a big performance: I did it without thinking. I rarely noticed it, except when my Spidey-sense told me something unique might happen. Like now.
Phillip returned with Sloan in tow. "Sloan, I'd like you to meet Eric."
"Pleased to meet you." Her voice hinted at a cautious interest, exuding a chocolaty coolness like the hush of a bowstring gliding over a cello's middle register. I extended my hand and she gave it a refined shake.
I waited a beat too long before I let go, then smiled at the faux pas. "Thanks for coming."
"Thanks for having me. Happy Birthday."
Phillip patted my shoulder. "I'll leave you two to get acquainted."
Dress shoes clacked on the hardwood as Phillip disappeared into the clamor of music from the other room and left Sloan and I alone. Harvey Sneed, my music coach, was telling an off-color joke in the kitchen. The crowd's laughter kept the silence between us from becoming uncomfortable. I'd heard the joke before and Harvey told it well. With great fanfare, he delivered the punch line--"When pigs fly!"--and Sloan chuckled. The rest of the gang laughed too and groaned as Harvey started another joke.
Sloan spoke again. "So this is your place?"
"How long you lived here?"
"Let's see. Going on five years now, I think."
She took a sip of her drink, like she was thinking. "I like your art."
"No really. I mean--I don't mean to be, well--obvious--but how does a guy like you get such cool art to hang on your walls?"
The art had been Phillip's idea too. When Sarah moved out, he said I needed to make a fresh start. Redecorate the apartment! he'd said. He helped me pick out the paintings. Actually he and Camille, a gallery owner he knew, picked them out. In the process, he tried to set me up with her, but in the end he said it would never work: she was too visual.
The art was inexpensive. According to Phillip, the collection of pieces reflected my personality perfectly. Enough visitors had made similar comments in the last nine months that at some point I had started to believe it. Still, the fact that everyone made the same remarks about the art felt a little like a joke to me. I caught myself smiling and looked away. I could tell she was looking at me.
"I hope that wasn't a rude question."
"No. That's a good question, actually. People ask me that all the time."
"Are your laughing at me?"
"No. Sorry, I was thinking of something else."
She reached out and pinched me hard on the forearm.
"Hey," I said in mock alarm. "That's not fair."
"Don't lie to me," she said, laughing herself. "I can smell a lie from a mile away."
I liked her confidence. And her voice. I couldn't get over the sound of it, like a song far away and near at the same time.
I reminded myself to take it slow. My affection for women ran in an easily recognizable pattern: meet a great girl, fall head over heels for her, go out for awhile, break up, pick up the pieces. And the girl always seems to think that my problems are the same as everyone else's problems. But they're not. Funny. My lifestyle seemed obvious enough, but the girl never understood it was going to be a problem until I had already committed one-hundred and ten percent. By then, it was too late.
"So it's your birthday," she said.
"What do you want?" I could feel her eyes on my face, appraising me. She let the suggestiveness in the question stand, gauging my response. I wondered if her directness rattled hostile witnesses when she cross-examined them on the stand.
"Oh, you know. Cure for cancer. World peace. The usual things."
I took a sip of my beer. "I hear you're a lawyer."
"Yeah, pays the bills. You know."
"So you...don't like it?"
"I didn't say that. But it isn't my, shall we say, first love."
"What's your first love?" I asked.
"My aren't we nosy."
"If this relationship is going to work, I'm going to have to ask you to show better discretion."
"OK." I nodded and smiled like a schoolboy who'd learned his lesson.
Sloan talked about her job. She worked in a law firm downtown--pretty prestigious from what I could tell. She'd been there for four years and guessed she might make partner in another five, if she really worked. She hated the office politics, the backstabbing. She couldn't trust anyone, which was a real adjustment for her because growing up she had always trusted everyone. She was constantly catching herself with her guard down and had now become super careful of anything she said. To her, it was like working in a police state.
I nodded and smiled, trying to imagine her workplace, wondering what her office looked like. By the sound of it, the rest of the gang had moved from the kitchen out onto the patio. Phillip came by and asked if we needed anything. We requested another round of drinks and he said he'd be right back.
Sloan said she wanted to sit down and so I led her carefully across the room, edging around the coffee table with my knee. We sat down on the couch together.
"You know I saw you play once," she said with a hint of bravado.
Here it comes, I thought. She's going to drop the standard line on me about how great my performance was, how she loved the concert, how the evening was such a treat for her. I loved playing the violin--it was my life--but the drudgery of going through the same story with a thousand different people over the years had taken its toll. I just couldn't bear to do it over and over again--almost verbatim--without busting into a sarcastic smile.
I did what I could to keep a straight face. "So, how did you like it?"
"I didn't think you were very good, actually."
Ouch. I didn't see that coming. I waited for the joking laugh, but it became clear after a second that she was serious.
"I guess you can't please everyone," I said.
"I do remember reading in the papers that you were ill at the time--but went on with the show anyway. So there is that. Maybe it was just an off night."
She didn't pull any punches, that was for sure. "Yeah, that was probably it."
"But you know, I'm really no judge of music. I'm more a literature person."
"Ah. I see."
Phillip came back with our drinks.
"For you Madame, a Bartles and James," Phillip said. "And for you, Eric, le Heineken."
I took the beer from him. "Thanks, man."
"Now Sloan," he said, "Go easy on the guy. It's his Birthday and all."
"I'm being good," she said, laughing.
"Alright. If you guys need anything, I'll be on the patio. Give me a holler."
We thanked him and he left.
"Hey, leave me alone."
"It's just that I don't think I've heard of anyone drinking a Bartles and James since college."
"And your point is?"
I thought about this for a moment. "Let's see. All the really wild and crazy fraternity chicks drank Bartles and James. You're drinking Bartles and James. Er go--"
"I don't like where this conversation is going, buster."
"I happen to like wine coolers. I know it's weird, but there it is. Take it or leave it."
"Thanks for setting me straight."
Despite my reservations, I really liked this girl. In my head, I counted the reasons why I didn't need to be in a new relationship right now. It didn't help that she seemed to be taking me seriously. It didn't help that the flavor of her shampoo--vanilla with a sweet trace of jasmine--kept drifting over in my direction.
She nudged me. "So how old are you anyway?"
She laughed in a way that told me she liked that. "No really."
"I'm an old man."
She sat up. "Wow! That is old!"
"I told you."
"I don't know if I should be seen hanging around with an old fogey like you."
"I heard old fogeys are cool. At least that's what they tell me."
"You know. 'They.' You gotta believe them if it's they."
She lolled her head back on the couch and leaned her body in to mine ever so slightly. I felt the skin of her shoulder against my upper arm. We sipped our drinks. The rhythm of her breathing came to my ear in an even and uninterrupted ebb. The noise in the rest of the room felt far away, washed out. In the stillness of our proximity, a subtle electric charge played between us like static.
She brushed her hand on my thigh. " I have to tell you something."
"I have an uncle who's blind."
"He's my favorite uncle, in fact. I used to go over to his house every day after school. You know, stay there until my folks got home from work."
"I used to play a game with him. I had this stuffed bear that he would ask me to hide anywhere in the house. I'd run off and find the hardest hiding spot I could think of, and put the bear there. Then when I came back, I would close my eyes and count to ten. He would smile real big and tell me exactly where I hid it. Every single time. It was pretty unbelievable."
"That sounds cool."
"But the thing that impressed me most was that he knew people really well. It didn't matter that he couldn't see them. He knew when they were lying, and knew when they were trying to hide something from him. He could always tell. It was like magic. I wish I was more like that."
I listened, not sure what I should say. It wasn't unusual for a blind person to have better hearing than a normal person. Her uncle could probably tell from the noise Sloan made where she was hiding the bear. As for knowing when people were lying, I didn't have the first clue.
She leaned into me. Her breathing had shallowed; she was thinking. "Do you think people are stupid?" she asked.
The question was odd. "What do you mean?"
"I mean, do you think people are generally stupid. You know. Most people. Do you think they do dumb things?"
I could think of a few dumb things I'd done in the past. "Yeah, I guess so."
"I do too. That's what everyone thinks. But you know what?"
"Even though people think that other people are dumb, they always consider themselves to be smart. Have you ever noticed that?"
I thought about it for second. She was right.
She went on. "All my clients think that. We march into court and every one of them is somehow convinced that they're bulletproof. They think the judge and the prosecutor and everyone else is dumb, but somehow they're not. Somehow they're smarter than everyone else."
"Yeah, I guess that makes sense."
"But I'm just going to admit it to myself."
"We should all be allowed to do something crazy once in awhile. Right? Even if it's dumb."
"Sure, I guess."
She put her hand on mine, and my heart rate ticked up a notch. Gently, she lifted my hand, guided it across the space between us until the tips of my fingers touched her face. I could feel the warmth of her cheek, her skin smooth, pleasing. She pressed my hand up in a slow arc, gently, taking her time, and I began to understand the shape of her face. She had high cheekbones, just as I'd imagined them; a small mouth; a pert nose; the delicate curve of her chin expressed a sleek grace, an innate determination. I could tell her beauty could be both hard and soft, depending on her mood.
I wondered what color her hair was--my guess was brunette--and imagined blue eyes as cloudy and mysterious as river water. My fingers brushed the eyebrow at her right temple; I felt her breath on the inside of my wrist and the faraway rhythm of her pulse. She smiled beneath my fingers, guided my thumb along the supple fold of her upper lip, and I contemplated what it would be like to wrap one arm around her waist, tug her to her feet, slow dance to the rock ballad on the radio.
She turned her head to the side, into my palm. The idea of kissing her fluttered through my thoughts, but I knew that wasn't in the cards. For a second I thought I heard her humming, but then decided it was my imagination. A flurry of eyelashes brushed my fingers as she opened her eyes and looked at me.
"I love your hands," she said.
I smiled. "Thanks. I work out."
She sighed, the subtle indication that she was enjoying this, but that we had had our fun, that the tour was over. She let my wrist go and my hand fell to my lap; I still felt the hot tingle of a buzz in the pit of my stomach.
"I hate to run," she said. I could tell from her voice that she was sort of putting the pieces together, that what had just happened had been as unexpected for her as it was for me. "I have an early deposition in the morning. All the way across town."
I was careful to keep any hint of disappointment out of my voice. "Sure. No problem."
"Thanks for letting me come to your party. It was really fun."
"Anytime. You know, strangely, this happens about once a year, so consider yourself invited next year too."
She paused, as if wondering what to say next. I made sure the smile on my face stayed plastered there, and didn't falter.
"I...I'm a little embarrassed. I'd like to give you my number. But...how do I do that?"
"What? You don't read Braille?"
She laughed, relieved.
I pulled out my cell-phone and handed it to her. "Just put your number in there."
She typed it in, and though there was a voice in my head still saying "Slow, slow", I couldn't help but notice the air of excitement coalescing in the back of my brain.
"555-8743," I said.
She handed the phone back to me. "Wow. That's impressive. You've got a good ear."
"I took a college class on it. 'Fundamentals of Cell Phone Key Tone Scales 101'. I got an 'A'."
"Figures." She laughed, then leaned over and kissed me on the cheek. "I gotta go. Call me."
Then she was gone. I must have been smiling like an idiot when Phillip came over, because he knew what happened even before I told him.
"You dirty dog, you!" he said. "Got her number and everything. Man, that was like twenty-five minutes. You work fast."
"Well you know, all I gotta do is lay that Al Pacino Scent of a Woman shtick on them and they become like putty in my hands."
"Right. So really. What'd you think of her?"
"I...I think she's...." And I didn't want to say it, but it felt like the truth. "It's far too early to make any firm conclusions, you understand...but I think she's almost perfect."
"That's what I knew you'd say."
"Knew I'd say? You were telling me she was too much for me--'you're getting slow in your old age'--etcetera, etcetera. Don't go taking credit for it now."
He patted me on the knee. "Now Eric. Do you honestly believe, as stubborn and mule-headed as you are, that if I told you I had the absolute perfect girl for you to meet, you'd say yes?"
I thought about this. "No. I guess not."
"Exactly. Case closed."
"You don't have to gloat about it."
"Oh, and one more thing."
Ground school today. I learned at least one thing. If I want to fly this:
And I don't want this:
I have to study this:
I have six days to learn it all.
I'm not complaining, mind you. I find this stuff fun, but I won't be 'round the blogosphere too much this next week. I hope you understand. :D
Have a groovy time, friends, and I'll see you in a few days!
Staring out the window, all the fields and towns look tiny, and there are patterns there that are not visible except from this height. It is a pretty amazing view, and I find myself mulling things over in my WIP.
As I get further into my story, I am starting to consider the structure of the scenes, the pacing, the way certain bits of information are shared with the reader. I think I've posted before that I tend to write extremely messy first drafts that go all over the map--so there is a definite need to take all that content and pair it with a structure that keeps my novel from sagging in the middle, or dragging at the end. In my mind, good structure really is about balance between the different parts of the story.
Creating and applying a structure to accomplish these goals can be tricky. It's a bit like the Nazca lines down in Peru. If you haven't heard about these fascinating lines, I'll share a little history. For hundreds of years, the locals and then the Europeans who arrived in the area near Lima, Peru knew that there were strange man-made rock formations out in the desert. They had no clue what they were for or who put them there. In the early twentieth century, when the airplane was invented and people started flying over the area, they realized that the strange formations were actually symbols, visible only for the air.
There's an important lesson here, I think, and as I dig into my WIP, I am realizing that the ground-view, page level vantage point isn't going to cut the mustard. I need to look at things from 35,000 feet.
In my playwrighting days, I had several tricks that I would deploy to evaluate and tweak structure. For one, I'd place each scene on an index card, then lay all the index cards out on the floor and move them around to explore different structures to determine what works best. This also sometimes helps to identify scenes that can be combined or cut.
I also sometimes write an outline or treatment which serves the same purpose: to ensure that each scene performs it's function and fits into the larger inciting incident-rising action--climax--denouement framework.
What about you? What do you do to get a strategic view of your WIP?
First, Nashville needs help. Go check out Do The Write Thing For Nashville, a site where goodies for writers are being auctioned off to raise funds for the hard hit area. Southern Princess, Courtney Barr has more details about the devastation down there. It doesn't look pretty, so let's all pitch in and do what we can.
Also, go check out Tricia at Talespinning's contest. It's a good one!
And I'm just back from surviving the helo dunker. My skin is still tingling! It was so much fun, I just had to post of up this video to give you a taste of what it was like. Enjoy!
Have a great Thursday.
In class this morning, we learned about human factors. What are human factors, you say? I'm glad you asked.
It turns out that most aviation mishaps do not result from a mechanical malfunction or act of god, like bad weather. The most likely cause of an accident, by a wide margin, is pilot error. Pilot error occurs when the pilot loses situation awareness, or fails to perceive his environment properly. Most of these problems are lumped together broadly under the heading of spatial disorientation, or SD (gotta love those acronyms!).
A key component of SD is what a pilot thinks about what he sees. His brain's interpretations of the incoming data, whether it be visual, aural, or through some other channel, can affect his understanding of his surroundings, sometimes with disastrous consequences. Like a blind spot, a pilot's opinions can actually cause him to miss key information or objects because his brain has convinced him they aren't there.
I think writers can suffer from the same problem. Don't believe me? Let's do a test then, shall we? I want you to read the following phrase:
Done? Good. Now store those words away for a moment and let's have some fun!
I learned this trick in my college Psych class, but they used a similar test this morning. You see, what you just read doesn't actually say what you think it says. WAIT! Don't go back and read it again until I explain.
Reportedly, about 90% of the normal population will fail this test, because of how our brains work. Since you are a bunch of writers who do a lot of editing, I'd expect the numbers to be lower--say half--but I still stand by my claim. At least 50% of you think the above phrase says something different than it actually says.
OK. I'll let you in on the secret. Read it again. It says: "Paris in the *THE* spring." Yep. Missed it, didn't you?
You see, your brain is hardwired with all these rules you don't know are there. Since the word "the" never comes right after another "the", your brain skips right over it without telling you. A truer illustration of an honest-to-goodness blind spot, I've never seen.
So what does this mean for us writers? It means we probably have tons of these little rules infecting our prose because our brain skips over the blemishes without telling us. The trick is to develop techniques to see into these blind spots. Here are three that work for me:
- Read my prose out loud. Somehow the act of reading it tickles a different part of the brain and I hear phrase problems as well as other things that I don't discover when reviewing silently.
- Print and review a hardcopy. The words on paper appear differently than they do on screen. They're laid out in a different way. The experience of holding the page in my hand, the physicality of it as opposed to reading from the screen is different. These distinctions help me to illuminate blind spot areas also.
- Change font type and size. This can also jar things loose. In fact, sometimes I write my drafts in one font, then edit in another.
These all work by tricking your brain into looking at your fiction in different ways. And of course, the help of another brain (read beta reader or critique partner) brings a ton to the table as well.
What about you? Do you have blind spots? What do you do to keep your brain from playing tricks on you?
See, I am writing this from a crowded jetway at Bush International Airport in Houston, Texas. Yeah, I'm on the road again. The last week has been a whirlwind of calls and emails to a veritable army of people straightening out my travel plans and the details of our move to Sicily. At the moment, we are set to depart around the first week of June, but based on the various perambulations observed in the last several days, that might still change.
No, I won't be missing all this travel hoop-jumping when it finally comes time to retire in two years time; it'll be nice to kick the feet up and stay in one spot for awhile.
Nonetheless, I am still managing to find it fun now. My current travel takes me first back to the scene of the crime--Norfolk, Virginia--for some swim training, and then I head down to my hometown, San Antonio, next week for two weeks of ground school.
All these events promise to be fun and challenging and are only slightly marred by the fact that they keep me from writing. But we can't have everything, can we? In the meantime, Furnace Girl will keep the home fires burning, and we've asked Muffin to take over troublemaker duties (my usual role), an endeavor she has taken on with gusto.
In all the hubbub, I didn't get a Friday Link Love post up this week, so here I present a very special, once-in-a-lifetime Sunday edition of Friday Link Love (in trying to cover up my tardiness by selling this as something special, I'm hearing a line from that old U2 song in my head: "You can sew it up, but you still see the tear". :) At the rate I've been going recently, maybe I should start calling it Monthly Link Love. Hmmm......the metallic sound you hear is the noise of the cogs in my brain working.
But today's post is a veritable Link-a-Pa-Looza. In fact, I've been sitting on a bunch of links for awhile, so here is a pretty hefty list. I hope you enjoy.
- Kerry over at The Writing Bug incites us to bust out of our writing box. That's something I need to do.
- I totally dug this list (with diagram!) of eight traits needed to succeed as a writer that Elaine Smith posted over at her place. I chose persistence. Which one is yours?
- Anne Tyler Lord published this absolutely wicked cool post about writers and the left/right brain phenomenon. With videos and a really cool experiment that will tell you if you are in fact left or right brain dominant.
- If you're in need of writing prompts, check out this cool site: Three Word Wednesday.
- I thoroughly enjoyed this post entitled "The Clasp" from Jerry over a Gently Said. If you're not familiar with his blog, you should check it out. He tells some great stories, and he's a Navy man to boot--so what's not to like?
- Brian Keaney put up this thoughtful post about the importance of understanding your audience--and writing with that in mind.
- When it comes getting published, this explains it all.
- Are you a pantser or a plotter? Roni at Fiction Groupie explains the finer points.
- And finally, Scott at the Literary Lab talks about maintaining balance between your writing life and your blogospheric life, a topic which has been very near and dear to my heart lately.
Now for dessert:
Have a great Sunday. Stay groovy and thanks for stopping by!