Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Writing Tip Tuesday

One job of a writer is to relate information to the reader as seamlessly as possible. (Good ole "show, don't tell.")

But that is sometimes tricky and takes a lot more effort than a non-writer might realize.

Making that skill all the more difficult is the fact that you, the writer, know information that the reader does not - so it's sometimes hard to gauge what to leave to the reader to find out as she reads along vs. what to go ahead and give her right away.

One of the most valuable "tools" for a writer is a pair (or two) of fresh eyes, i.e., a cold reader.

A cold reader can tell you what she doesn't understand, what she needs to know sooner, etc.

Let me give you two examples from personal experience:

I recently had a teacher relate to me that her students liked the way I didn't tell them who Ugly was in the opening scene of Greetings from Nowhere - that they had to read another paragraph or two to find out.

"Harold would have known what to do," Aggie said to Ugly. She tossed the unopened envelope into the junk drawer on top of the batteries and rubber bands, old keys and more unopened envelopes. "Let's go sit and ponder" Aggie said.

So, the reader doesn't know who Ugly is.

If I had gone on much longer, however, young readers would probably have gotten frustrated. I needed to get the information in there soon - but as seamlessly as possible.

She scooped up the little black cat and shuffled across the dirty orange carpet.

There - now we know.

I kept the reader waiting just long enough to make them curious - but not frustrated.

But in my current work-in-progress, I wasn't as successful:

When the BB hit Henry square in the eye, she had screamed bloody murder and carried on so much that when Velma came running out of the house to see what all the fuss was about, she had thought it was Charlene who’d been shot in the eye.

It wasn't until another page and a half that I identified Velma as his grandmother.

Initially, it just felt too telling to insert "his grandmother" in front of Velma.

I knew who Velma was - so it was hard for me to gauge whether or not the reader really needed to know this right away.

Apparently the reader did need to know.

Two topnotch editors - reading with fresh eyes - wrote "Who is Velma?" in the margin.

I'll be honest with you - I didn't really want to insert "his grandmother" - and it felt not-very-seamless to me - but I knew I had to do it.

Sometimes, you just have to listen.

I heard an agent speak at a conference years ago and I will never forget her "formula" for a good children's book: Make 'em laugh; make 'em cry; and make 'em wait.

I realize the "make 'em wait" part applies primarily to plot - but I also think it should apply to "smaller" elements of the story, as well.

But this can be one of the trickier elements of writing for children - how long to make 'em wait for information.

I think the answer comes from a combination of instinct, experience, and the value of cold readers.

(I realize that I've imparted zero information in this supposed "tip" - but sometimes food for thought is as good as a tip. At least, that's my story and I'm stickin' to it.)


Sara said...

Thanks, Barbara. I'm struggling with just this very thing as I revise. It doesn't help that I'm moving big chunks around, and then I have to check to see what information is still there on the page, and what's only in my head. At moments like these, I wish for a computer-enhanced brain. Thank goodness for editors...

Carol said...

I am an elementary teacher and wanna be children's author. HOW TO STEAL A DOG is my current favorite intermediate grade read aloud, and GREETINGS FROM NOWHERE is on the top of my summer reading list.
I love the Writing Tips! Every Tuesday morning, before I get my kids up and start the craziness of life as an elementary teacher/ single mom of two middle school sports addicts, I jump on line and take a few minutes to learn from you. Thanks so much!!!!
Carol Wilcox

Barbara O'Connor said...

Wow, Carol! Thanks so much! I'm delighted to know you enjoy the tips. You've given me incentive I needed - I was beginning to think I was running out of tips. Now I'm motivated to dig up some more. :-) Good luck with your writing.

Sara: I'll second that: thank goodness for editors. It's amazing how much we don't see because we're looking so hard.

Sarah Miller said...

Smart, smart, smart!

I run into this all the time -- my head is stuffed with context and research, and it's a bugger figuring out how much is "just right." I tend to err on the side of not enough. I forget that my brain full of facts won't accompany the story everywhere it goes.

Stephanie J. Blake said...

I'm revising right now. I love the tips! Thank you.

Sara: I keep a Word doc open, in addition to my story, where put my deleted, orphaned, moved sentences...just in case.

Anonymous said...

That was an excellent tip, food for thought- whatever you want to call it. Keep 'em coming! G.

Unknown said...

I found your site today. I book marked it today! I have just read the WHOLE site. I teach writing workshops for teachers. Your Tuesday Writing Tips ARE WONDERFUL. I am going to quote you all over the country! Thank you for opening up your process and sharing your thinking! www.debrennersmith.com

Barbara O'Connor said...

Thanks, Deb! Where should I send your check? :-)

Anonymous said...

Love this tip. I'm struggling with it this very day.

Like you, I'd rather not muck with the sentence by adding "his grandmother" -- but then I overcompensate by shoving the next paragraph full of some detour memory of the day grandmother baked the MC an apple with the worm still in it and ever after she took tiny bites at every meal, fearful of what other critters it might contain.

And then, in later chapters, I add some other bit that now depends on you knowing that peripheral detail of the worm -- which still doesn't really belong gumming up the first chapter -- but now it's part of the plot and so its harder to delete.


Anyway, thanks for the fab tip and for the useful website. If you want to come over here and solve my problem, I'll thank you for that, too.

Barbara O'Connor said...

I'm on my way!

Seriously, though - your writing is so lovely - your process is obviously working. Keep it up....

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