Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Minus 10 pp. and showing vs. telling continued

I got through Ch. 6 today, focusing as discussed before, and got it down by 2 pp., which totals 10 pp. of cuts, which puts it at 383 pp. Dang. That's almost 200 pp. down from where it was 6 months ago.

A few words about the perennial subject of showing vs. telling and an example of the kind of line editing I've been doing this round . . .

I've been reading an anthology called The Writer's Notebook: Craft Essays from Tin House. (anthology is from the Greek meaning "I liked some of the pieces OK.") The one I read yesterday was "The Telling That Shows" by Peter Rock which argues that the rule about showing/not telling is more a guideline and that sometimes telling is preferable when it is coming from a voice of authority. Or that it's a blurry line between the two concepts--when a narrator speaks with authority the telling is a kind of showing. An interesting idea that I'm willing to consider, and today I came across a particular point in my editing that might be evidence for the theory.

I have a line that has read, "She examined the broken spaceship, and the damage turned her stomach a little." In my read through, I inked in some improvements to that, and I was typing them into the computer file today, but when I came to it I wasn't satisfied with the improvements, which were in the category of adding physical specificity. The spaceship was "on the floor next to her" and damage was to "the expensive toy."

That's less abstract. More showing. But somehow still flat and lifeless. "Examined" is a thesaurus word for "looked at," which is what she was really doing. "A little" is a little too much clutter.

In noodling around with a fix, trying to describe the image that I saw in my head, I hit on the word "miserably" as in "looked at it miserably" but backed off. I probably hold the rule to avoid adverbs more dear than the rule to show/not tell. Then I realized I was really hanging up on avoiding "looked at"--that in going for more active and descriptive verbs as much as possible I was going an inch too far on the show/don't tell rule. What if I just told what she was doing like I pictured it?

What I came up with was, "She gave a miserable look at the broken spaceship on the floor next to her." What I think I've done here is technically changed my original showing version into a telling version but, contra to conventional wisdom, improved it. "Miserable" has replaced "damage turned her stomach," and the less physical, more abstract version somehow feels more precise and knowing and intimate.

At least I think so. It's a theory.

Anyway, these are the kinds of micro edits that are taking up a lot of my attention lately, in addition to the "intention" macro-question that I've talking about.

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