Friday, February 13, 2009

Show vs Tell . . . in critiques

I've been a moderator at Other Worlds Writers Workshop (also found on Yahoo Groups) for over ten years now. I've seen a lot of eager newbies, and a lot of critiques--and critters. Too often, people on both ends of the crit scratch their heads over the problems being pointed out because, in many cases, neither one is exactly sure what the problem actually is, only that there is one. The beginner is too new at the craft to know how to pick up on the flaws in his/her writing style. The critter is often unable to articulate how to fix it. The ubiquitous "this is too passive" or "you spend a lot of time telling instead of showing" crit is perfectly useless to the writer receiving one. When asked, many critters spouting these platitudes can't actually even demonstrate the difference between a Show and a Tell. They know it when they see it, but they can't (or won't take the time) to articulate it in ways that help the poor newbie fix the problem.

So what makes for a great critique? One that is on point, encouraging, and instructive all at once. Many people like to score points on fellow writers by being snarky, hiding their own deficiencies by ragging on someone's work. Others settle in to lecture, drowning the author in do's and don'ts gleaned from the innumerable how-to-write books they've read while not actually writing anything of their own. OWWW chucks out the professional critters right along with the lurkers who never participate at all. Critting should not be about demonstrating how much you know, or think you know, or about destroying some poor guy's ego, but about honestly analyzing a piece to help the writer fulfill his vision for it.

How to do that? Ah, there's the rub. It's easy to fall into the trap of trying to rewrite the piece to what you think it should be. Sometimes critiquing is a matter of telling your own instincts to get back in their cage and stretching to try and understand what the author is trying to accomplish. If you can't control your editorial urge to complete rewrite it, you should walk away and crit something else, or stick to the mechanics of "needs trimming" and "writing is really passive."

HOWEVER. . . (she said), you need to SHOW the writer what you mean when you toss around terms like trimming and passive and Tell. A really good crit takes some time and committment. It takes picking out specific examples of the writing and editing them to show where the excess verbiage lies. It means demonstrating the correct way to punctuate dialogue when the writer consistently does stuff like "I can't go out tonight." Mary said. It means showing the newbie what passive means by practical demonstration:

"Joe was walking down the street. He had just gotten off the bus, and it was raining. He had started that morning in Oklahoma, after Mary threw him out. It had been a long time coming; he had cheated on her once too often. They had been together ten years. Didn't that count? But she had said to get out and not come back. Now here he was, walking in the rain in a town he couldn't even name."

Not only does this story start in the wrong place (in my opinion), it distances the reader from the precipitating event that places the POV character where he is, losing all its emotional punch. It uses that deadly "had" to look back at the dramatic events of the morning, not to mention the "was-ing" going on everywhere, that horrible hallmark of passive writing. The reader is being Told what happened to Joe, instead of living it with him.

Now, the writer may have some perfectly valid reason for starting the story in the new town, and the critter should respect that while pointing up that perhaps it would be better started earlier. Regardless of who is right on that point, the critter can still try to help with the passive and boring opening. To demonstrate active writing and drive home the point about starting the story sooner, the critter could offer an alternative opening:

"Get out, you lying sack of scum!"

"Jesus, Mary!" Joe only just dodged the vase his housemate threw at him, the ugly one his sister had given them when they moved in together, he noted as it whizzed past his ear. It shattered against the wall a foot from his head, peppering him with splinters like shrapnel. "Ow!"

He pawed at a stinging spot on his cheekbone and brought his hand away red. "I'm bleeding!"

"Good!" Mary reached for more ammunition. "Get out, now, before I hunt up the shotgun! Go back to your barfly!"

Joe winced, ten hours later and two hundred miles away. She wasn't a barfly, he thought sadly as the bus's brakes hissed and the Greyhound rocked to a stop. But I guess Mary had a point.

Rain streaked the windows and pounded off the pavement outside. He stood up and shrugged into his coat, shuffled down the aisle between mostly-empty seats and out into the rain. End of the line. This was as far as the money in his pockets took him. A new place. A new start. What the hell was the name of this place again?

The rain beat down on his head. Maybe I shoulda married her, he thought as the bus pulled away, starting a small tidal wave up over the curb to soak his shoes. Then he grinned. She always did hate that vase.

Which version engages the senses, uses active verbs, establishes a mood, puts the reader into the action instead of looking back at it? Which establishes characterization and a sense of how the protag thinks? Which gives you a mental picture?

Of course, simpler methods exist for getting the point across: "It was raining" becomes "Rain poured from the sky as though God had upended a bucket, sluicing down the street in a solid sheet." Or even: "Joe flipped the collar of his coat up against the water dripping from his hair down his neck and ducked his head against the downpour." Guess what? We know it's raining, but we never once mentioned the word.

Pointing out every example of bad writing in a crit would be exhausting, of course, and above and beyond the duties of critters. One good example should be sufficient, with an admonition to the writer to find all the rest. Pointing out two examples of overused words should be followed by "It might be instructive to you to run a find and replace in your document on 'was'. You might be shocked by how many times you fall into the passive construction." It is not up to the critter to serve as a free editorial service for a lazy writer. If they want to learn, point out the path and step out of the way.

How do you avoid putting your stamp on someone's work, imposing your personal rules on someone's chosen style? I have received crits that were one long grammatical lesson, trying to impose "correct" Chicago style on my creative piece. Hmm. Not that helpful, all in all. A good crit should look at the story, not just the mechanics. If the plot is lame, the passives may not matter, but you should still point them out so the writer can continue to improve. Knowing the writer's skill level, self-assessed or otherwise, is a good starting point. Respecting a writer's request that you proffer no line crits, or to please focus on the characterization as a known weak spot, will always get you points, and force you to stretch out of your own critting comfort zone. It is, or should be, easy to tell the beginners from those who have mastered the basics of active writing and storytelling. The one-size-fits-all crit is just as bad as the "too much passive voice" crit.

A lot of people join workshops intending to jump right in, only to be intimidated by the thought of offering an opinion about someone else's work, especially if the writing is fairly good. I always try to remind newbies that every reader is entitled to an opinion. You are, after all, the one who is or is not going to plunk money down on a book. You will react in some way to the writing, good or bad. It is fair to tell a writer that the opening did not grab you or that you couldn't follow the wandering plot, or that Character X just didn't seem believable. You should always try, however, to point out some specific example where X was doing something you found unrealistic, or to pinpoint the exact moment at which your attention started to wander. Even if you don't quite know how to fix these problems yourself, you can still provide valuable feedback--if you Show and don't simply Tell the writer where he went wrong. In your opinion.

Good critters are generally made, not born. They evolve as they grow more proficient in their own writing. My advice to both writers and critters is to embrace the Show vs Tell rule, learn it, understand it down to their bones. Once it becomes part of your writing DNA, a good many other problems will disappear almost effortlessly. And that includes weak and fuzzy crits.

There. Those are my words pulled from thin air for the day. Make of them what you will.

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