Monday, January 13, 2014

Lessons from early work

I've caught up with my blog comments on previous posts, some of which I hadn't seen until today. (I do appreciate comments and try to respond to all of them.)

I've mentioned that I have been cleaning out boxes of old writing, keeping some stories and discarding others.

The materials I'm discarding are those that just didn't work (most of which were rewritten later and better). Here are some examples of pointless details I included in early stories:
"She chattered on about the family while I packed and got my change ready for the bus."
"I put stronger light bulbs in the lamps ..."

This is what I mean when I say, "Skip the boring parts."

But by far the biggest flaw I'm noticing is a tendency to have characters tell other characters big chunks of exposition. Sometimes it's telling what I should be showing. For example:
"'It's just that Sarah's going to be away and I think he's scared of being alone. He's been like that since his heart attack.'"
I could have let the reader figure out that the character is afraid, and why.

Or this, from a story about girls who had just lost a battle to try to establish a girls' basketball team at their school:
"'They've got their flimsy cover-up excuse. No money for an all-girls' team. And we can't join the boys' team because, according to the impartial Coach Timothy, we're not good enough. Not that he's prejudiced, or anything. It was perfectly fair of him to tell us to hit the showers after two minutes of warm-ups. Hell, anyone can make decisions about team cuts after watching us run a lap and a half.'
'He did let us shoot some baskets.'
'Yeah. Two lay-ups, which I made. One foul shot, which I made. You got one foul shot, which you missed. ...'"
The thing about that dialogue is that the characters are recounting events that they both know about, because they both witnessed them firsthand in  each other's presence. A perfect case of As-you-know,-Bob!
(In addition, that story was very soapboxy, lacking any complexity or nuance.)

But it's not all drivel. My favorite finds are stories I'd forgotten about, or stories that are as interesting as I'd remembered. I like best the ones where a character is an interesting situation right from the first paragraph, and is observing and reacting in the moment. The ones where there's a little mystery, something not quite right, a source of tension. That's what I always aim for, but it's not easy to hit that target.

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