That Would Be Telling

The first piece of advice I heard about querying is not to query too early. It turned out to be kind of horseshit. Every first time novelist – everyone –   queries too early. The query letter is the very first time an untrained writer considers her writing as something for the world. It will be unfit for an agent at that point because the problem—what it is to write for other people – looks simple. It is not. It’s a relationship. It’s falling in love.

I’m maybe not the best at writing action, but I show. I don’t tell. I never tell.

It’s a problem.

For the first three or four months, I did this writing thing nearly alone (one exception: HI, DOT). I sought out and gave critique, but the writing itself didn’t inspire people to give me a whole lot of help. I revised and improved. I kept showing people my work. They started responding. A handful of people got what I was going for and invested in me. That’s still kind of unreal. I didn’t spend my teenage years in the same state as any of my immediate family. Didn’t graduate high school. Accepting generosity (even as literary feedback!) is precious and very new to me, a crabby little thing.

Fairly consistent feedback: give us what your protagonist thinks.

I’m horrified. That would be telling. No. No, no, no. Nope.

I can get away with my aversion in short stories, but novel-length manuscripts fall apart without a little telling.

For physical description, many intermediate writers make the mistake of reinventing the eyeball every time.  “Amber inset in ivory orbs floating in the vanilla pudding of his face,” or whatever. Folks, it’s an eye. The sun is the sun and is also not an orb. A testicle isn’t an orb either. Nothing is orbs. The amount of time you spend sketching out an object lends it narrative weight. Let’s be real, no eye, sun, or testicle has ever mattered in all of literature. Love your reader. Tell us it’s sunny and get to the plot.

Telling’s especially useful when writing your protagonist’s inner journey. Of course, the majority of it should be shown. You can find endless resources on how to do that. A supplement to that advice: a sentence or two of telling can add clarity.

Fiction, unlike other mediums, lets you tell the reader what your character intends to do. Don’t be afraid to spell it out. Clarity builds and maintains tension within a scene. Will the protagonist get what she wants? It maintains tension between scenes. After your protagonist fails (and they should always fail on some level), the protagonist can reflect on what her disappointment means. She can then resolve to do a new thing. Use it sparingly, but do use it. Judicious telling can be the difference between having a series of unconnected events and having a plot.

I know this. I still fight telling with my best wannabe M. F. A. jargon. I like ambiguity, I say. I like to leave room for the reader. Isn’t having a plot just little obvious?

Didn’t get away with it. You can’t argue a plot into working. I could either decide my critique partners didn’t know what they were talking about or that these were, in fact, my people, and I had unexamined bullshit reasons to resist.

My bullshit goes something like this: If I tell you what my protagonist thinks, it will have to be at least a second cousin to something I’ve thought. Nobody cares what I think. If I tell people what I think, this becomes a conversation. Do I want that? People I don’t know might take what I think and use it however they want. I’m not sure I even like people.

Writing has forced me to confront whether I love my reader more than I love my bullshit. I don’t know if I’m doing this right yet.

But I want to.

M. K. Anderson is a writer from Austin, Texas. Her short story, Grizzly, will be published in Nightscript Vol. III in October. You can find her on Twitter @emkayanders.

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