I wanted to write a new post today but I’m bogged down by a migraine. This oldie-but-goodie about the way a writer learns her/his craft is my get out of jail free card. Enjoy!
It’s funny, the way I learn. By now I’ve been a writing coach for over six years, so you’d think I’d be wielding the writing tools like a pro*.
In reality, I stumble about like a savage who’s been dropped into the 21st century and has to learn everything by spying on other people. “What are these round things under that th….Oh! It moves!…Hey, wow, you can drive those things!…What? A speeding ticket?!”
*= Something like this:
Similarly, my writing does not, as you would expect, evolve by neatly applying previously acquired knowledge. Oh no, my friends. That would be way too easy.
My learning curve usually works something like this: First, I hack and slash my way through some concept, let’s say ‘a plot point’, and end up with a working but rather crude execution.
Then what happens is, two months later I’m reading a book, let’s say The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen (let’s, okay. LET’S.), and I see this same concept so beautifully executed it puts my pumpkin-stained fumblings to shame.
It’s not until I see the concept the way it’s supposed to be executed, that I really GET it. I sortakinda got it before – after all, I’ve been studying this stuff for years – and the ironic thing is, usually, I’ve even HELPED OTHERS get it, but for myself, my brain can’t really process the knowledge into a workable tool until I’ve seen it done by the pros and fallen on my face a few times trying to imitate them.
Huh? I thought this was going to be about boobies.
I’ll give you an example. It’s a scene from my book that’s always been in the first chapter: a confrontation between Nora Starke (my main character) and one of her models. The function of this scene is character exposition. I want to tell the reader something about Nora and how she handles adversity, but in a way that also moves the plot forward.
In the first draft, the model shows up an hour and a half late. Nora has just been snapped from a memory of the night before, which was pretty traumatizing (her boyfriend Johnny appears to be having an affair). Her reaction to the model is really her reaction to Johnny: she is trying to retain the upper hand. Normally she’s in control; the night before, she was not, and it scares her. She takes that out on the model. After she’s ‘won’ this face-off, she’s ready to take on the world again. Here’s a fragment:
“Nora?” Andy stands before her, his hand around the upper arm of a tall, pale girl. She has long, awkward limbs and freckled skin, and an absurdly beautiful face, like a sunflower. Veronica. “She says someone asked her for directions and she lost track of time.”
“Thanks, Andy.” Her back straightens.
The girl puts her hands on her hips with a hint of defiance. “Miss Starke-”
“Look at your watch,” Nora says.
Veronica, puzzled, looks down at her bare wrist. “I don’t have a watch. But hey, look, Miss Starke-”
“Look at your phone, then.” Silence falls upon the room. “Now. I mean it.”
The girl drags her phone from her stuffed Armani bag – a gift from one of the recent clients Nora helped her get with endless tenacity. All the hours spent on the phone making deals for Veronica fly by Nora, like the rustling pages of a book.“What time is it?” she says.
“Hey- Miss Starke? Listen, I know I’m-”
“What. Time. Is. It.”
Quizzically, Veronica scans the display. “13.48?”
“Alright. 13.48. Remember that.”
“Because that’s the time you got fired.”
What we see here, is that the minute Nora is confronted with adversity – model showing up too late – she has a suave reply ready, even though she’s just been snapped from a nightmarish memory. I wanted to show the reader that Nora usually has superior control over everything, no matter what happens. However, that doesn’t work so well, because the model doesn’t pose a real threat. She’s late, yeah, but so what? What I get from this is ‘overpowering bitch’, not ‘superior control over unexpected situation’. It’s too simplistic. Let’s see that again:
Okay, so then what happened is I read…a certain book, and I had a couple of revelations. The most important of which: it’s okay to – sparingly! – describe things instead of showing them. You can get away with simply telling the reader what is up, sometimes. ‘Show, don’t tell’ has been my mantra for years, but now, Franzen (yeah, like you didn’t know) has shown me a way to ‘tell’ that works. That has given me a lot more leeway when it comes to setting up characters and motivations.
So lesson number one: short explanations are okay, and can actually be a lot more effective than setting up a whole situation to ‘show’ the reader a minor character detail.
When I rewrote the scene, I experimented with a few of these short ‘explanations’. Also, this time, the model poses a real threat. Nora is trying to start her own modelling agency, which nobody from her current agency must find out about. When she sees one of ‘her’ models, it opens up the possibility of being found out. So that’s another change I applied that I learned from draft one and from reading Franzen ->
Lesson number two: ALWAYS raise the stakes. Make them worth a scene.
The last change is that this time, I have tried to give Nora more of an ‘absorb and react’-dynamic throughout the scene: her initial reaction to the model is all wrong. By seeing her struggle to correct herself and regain the upper hand, the reader can actually appreciate her quality of ‘superior control’ by seeing it in action. So that’s another really important thing ->
Lesson number three: show character traits through changes in the dynamic of the scene.
So there we go, a fragment of draft two:
“What are you doing here?”
Nora regretted her tone the second the words came out of her mouth. Veronica’s face wilted. With this girl, she should have gone for light and inconspicuous. Ever since Nora had discovered Veronica, a runaway, on the streets of West Hollywood, they had engaged in a mother-daughter relationship. Every model-agent dynamic required a different investment, and in this case Nora had been able to use a straightforward scenario of crossing professional boundaries and acting like the mother the girl had never had. Textbook case.
Quickly she rearranged her features. Stern mother was the only angle she could think of. “Hey, I didn’t mean to scare you. I was just thinking of your rep.”
She put a hand on Veronica’s shoulder. “We’ve talked about this, remember? To build your rep you can only attend a few choice events, if you want to maintain exclusivity.”
Veronica’s eyes were clear planes of blue. She was a model of the quirky variety, suited for high fashion but not very commercial. The idea of exclusivity as a professional tool had been hammered into her head for the last few months, but the concept clearly hadn’t stuck.
“Who has invited you here?” Nora asked.
A hint of suspicion dawned in Veronica’s eyes. “Am I obliged to tell you?”
Nora widened her own eyes, erasing every trace of aggression from her face. “What?” She swallowed and turned away, then smiled bravely. “No, honey, of course not. You are the director of your own life.”
Veronica looked down. “I’m sorry.”
Nora turned to wash her hands. Water splashed noisily in the sink.
“Karen Vicar invited me. She said that her magazine is considering a shoot with a couple of the fighters. Like, a real edgy thing.”
Nora let the blow slide off of her, keeping her face in the same, mopey set.
“Please don’t be mad at me,” Veronica said.
She turned back and smiled, then, a freeing smile, a relief to herself as much as Veronica. “I’m not. It’s wonderful that you get these opportunities. I just want to guide you so you don’t make mistakes.”
“You think this is a mistake?”
Nora let the smile linger, narrowing her eyes as if blocking an unpleasant thought. “No, no, it’s nothing. Let’s talk it over in the office.”
So judge for yourself: is this better? Do you see what I’m trying to say?
But most importantly: do you know what YOUR learning curve is? Which tools work for you and how to wield them? And how did you find out?
As always, I hope this helps you with your craft. Happy writing!
What? Still no boobies?
Okay, you’ve read all the way to here, you’ve earned them.