Experience: The Second Best Teacher

I recently sent Addicted (my first novel) to someone who’d read Glass Houses (my first book–a memoir). In the accompanying email message, I said she would likely notice a big improvement in my writing because of what my great friends in the Athens Writers Workshop have taught me about writing.  She replied that she’d love to know more about what I’d learned.

This got me to thinking about everything I’ve learned since I joined the group ten months ago.  Sure, just the experience of writing a novel taught me quite a bit. But the real education came from comments and suggestions the other writers made about what I had written.  Here are a few of the more important things they taught me.

Show, don’t tell. This was an especially difficult lesson for me to learn. Glass Houses is almost entirely telling, and Addicted started out the same way. Rather than conveying the story through the words and actions of the characters, I simply recount (i.e. tell) what happened. Telling makes the reader a passive observer of something that has already happened. Showing brings the reader into the story as the action unfolds. My “aha!” moment came about three-fourths the way through the writing of Addicted.

Point of View (POV) matters.  Every story is told from someone’s perspective–whether an invisible narrator or a character in the story. Glass Houses is a first-person narrative told from my POV. “I did x, y, and z.” The POV in Addicted is third-person limited, with each chapter (and in a few cases, parts of chapters) coming from the POV of different characters.  It started out all coming from Josh’s POV, but eventually I added chapters from the POV of Thad and Adam. When I’m writing from Josh’s POV, I can’t say “Josh’s face paled” unless there’s a mirror around and he can see his face.  Unless Josh is a mind reader, I can’t say what Thad was thinking in a chapter written from Josh’s POV, either.  I must have learned about POV in school because, for the most part, my POV issues were minor.

Adverbs are bad! For the grammatically impaired, adverbs modify the meaning of verbs, adjectives, other adverbs, and clauses. Most (but not all) end in -ly. Adverbs are especially bad in dialogue tags–words that clue you into who said what. “Hello,” Josh said enthusiastically. Instead of showing what’s happening, adverbs tell what’s going on.  My editor for Glass Houses has marked through practically every adverb. Turns out there is some wiggle room here–I might keep a few that I think are important.

Novels need tension and conflict. Addicted started out as a fictionalized account of a part of my life that didn’t fit into Glass Houses. The simple truth is that nobody wants to read a story about a (relatively) normal person and his or her ordinary existence. People read to escape from average, mundane lives. To keep turning the page, they need a reason to worry about the main characters and to care about what’s going to happen to them. Compare “Bill walked down the street” with “Unaware of the suicide bomber behind him, Bill walked down the street.”  See what I mean?

Trust the reader. I tend to include lots of stuff you really don’t need to know.  To make matters worse, I usually put these details in long sentences that read like lists. “Josh got out of the shower, toweled off, brushed his teeth, put on his clothes, and walked out the door to go to work.” Yawn. This kind of detail really slows things down. “Josh went to work” is much better.  Most readers will figure out the rest of that stuff happened without having to be told. Another of my bad habits is adding little summaries to the ends of paragraphs or chapters that reiterate what’s already happened–just in case you missed it the first time. This, too, really slows things down, and for most readers, isn’t necessary.

Drag things out. I’m bad about introducing a problem, challenge, or crisis and resolving it by the end of the chapter. Letting the reader wonder what’s going to happen for a while adds tension and keeps them turning the page.  Instead of having the police catch the serial killer right away, let him run loose for several chapters so he still poses a threat. When characters disagree, instead of kissing and making up immediately, let them stew for a chapter or two so the reader wonders whether they’ll ever kiss and make up.

That’s six of the bigger lessons I could never have learned without the help of my writer’s group. Sometimes their criticism was hard to take. But I always knew they were only trying to help me to be a better writer. Ten months later, I think they succeeded. Adrienne, Amy, Misty, Kaitlin, Stephen, Ed, and Angela–Thanks. Because of you, there might one day be a published author writing here on…

My Glass House