Today I'm once again going to bring forward a note that I got for my own work.
"Get off the phone!"
No, I wasn't writing and texting. No my characters weren't having an excruciatingly long night of "You hang up first." "No you hang up first!". This all came down to the classic mantra "Show, don't tell." Apparently I let three of my chapters get very "tell-y" and less "show-y".
This has to be my biggest criticism writing peeve. It's so easy to say to a person, and yet, once it's on the page, it can be so hard to re-write. When you're reading someone else's work, you can spot it a mile away. Well, maybe not a mile, but you'll know it when you realize that you're skipping over huge chunks of description to get to the good stuff.
As a reader, I'm super dialogue focused. I've had to run back to previous passages because the dialogue alone was not meant to carry me forward. Probably why I had zero issues with the physical reading of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child - scripts are usually a pretty natural read for me.
DO NOT, take the above example and start making your work-in-progress totally dialogue exchange - I mean, unless that's what you were going for. What I was trying to get at is that lengthy description has its time and place, but where you don't want it is in scenes that should push your plot forward. And by that I mean in the actual SCENE. If there is no movement in the scene, if I cannot see what your characters are doing, if I'm just reading about it within the newspaper version of what your characters have done, then you need to step back and think about the action. Who is DOING what? Sure you can describe what the DOING looks like, but just as we get annoyed with our friends who talk about all of the amazing things they are going to do and then never seem to do it, we get equally annoyed with reading about things that happened behind the scenes.
Now the reason I hate this note isn't just because it is a pretty big deal when you fall into this writing trap; it's because the solution to digging yourself out of it is so situation specific. It'll change per book, per character, per chapter, etc.
I'm very lucky not to have had "Show, don't tell!" thrown at me as the one and only piece of advice as, unfortunately, many writers have had thrown at them from editors and potential agents. Honestly, if you aren't given any of the road signs to point you in the right direction at those specific road blocks you've written, it can be a very daunting, and sometimes defeating, task of going on the hunt yourself.
I know that I feel a bit overwhelmed just thinking about how I'm going to fix these three chapters. As I mentioned in my previous "Writing Tips", this story is a 1st person narrative, and within these troublesome chapters, my narrator is experiencing a heavy case of numbing depression. Somehow, and I haven't quite figured it out yet, I need to balance his detachment with his observations of what's going on around him. At the moment, it's a lot of emotionless observation. Apparently three chapters of it.
I wish that I could just give you some easy advice about how to pep up your sentences. Add active verbs. Use more dialogue. But it's not as easy as all of that.
If you stick around to read more of my future "Writing Tips" posts, I'll go through some examples of when I gave advice about "Show, don't tell," and solutions I suggested. These, however, will be for very specific cases.
To come back to this note, however, I'm stuck with trying to get my character out of his own head and into some action. "Get off the phone," stop having him recite what's going on and actually have him live it. And it's not that I can't do this. It's only these consecutive chapters where he's running out of reasons for being. The rest of the time, he's active, he's reactive, he's doing what characters are supposed to do in novels.
I'm going to have to find someway to cheat around his depression. I'm going to have to roll up my sleeves and get in the ring with this dude, make him acknowledge his own reactions. Because it's not that he isn't reacting - he's reacting to everything - it's that he wants to be numb. What I'm going to be fighting is the hold between me and my narrator. I'll have to intervene and make sure that he isn't narrating the way that he wants to narrate. Not to diminish his feelings, but to show how deeply he has them, even if he doesn't want anyone to see them.
Anyone who tells you writing is easy isn't very invested in their own work. Aside from the odd typo, and "these 3 chapters are a bit slow", I didn't get the same note twice from all of the people I handed it to. True that you can't please everyone, and there are some notes that I'm really going to have to delve back into those scenes to see if either me or my critiquer missed the mark, but there are some things that should always be a red flag. "Show, don't tell," "Get off the phone," "It's a bit slow," "I got bored," are just about the biggest red flags you can find. And if you hear it even as much as twice, I'd start looking things over if I were you.
In fact, that's what I'm doing right now!