Showing, Telling, and Paddling Ducks

“Show, don’t tell.”

That’s the mantra that gets hammered into the head of every beginning writer. If you’ve ever taken a creative writing class or attended a writer’s conference, you’ve probably heard something along the lines of, “Don’t say ‘Sally is sad.’ Show us Sally being sad.” This leads to painting a picture of Sally’s sad expression, describing the teardrops streaking her face, and detailing Sally’s posture and movements in a way that makes it clear to readers just how unhappy Sally is.

That’s good advice, as far as it goes. The problem is that for most people, external emotional responses are just a tiny part of their actual reaction. Indeed, one of the most important things we learn as we grow from childhood to adulthood is to hide our emotions.

It’s like that famous quote, usually attributed to actor Michael Caine: “Be like a duck. Remain calm on the surface and paddle like crazy underneath.” If your characters are to come off as real people, most of their emotional reactions are going to be entirely internal. And if we only ever describe the tranquility above the surface, our readers might never guess at the frantic paddling that’s going on down below.

My Own Achilles’ Heel

I’m blessed to be in a writing group with three perceptive readers who are diligent at reminding me when I’m not telling enough. We submit our chapters to each other using Google Docs, and we use the platform’s commenting feature extensively. When my group reviews my writing, the most common response I get from them is something along the lines of, “Where’s the emotional response?”

Okay, I’ll be honest. Sometimes I just forget. What happens, I think, is that I get lazy and assume that readers will take their own emotional response to the story and project it onto the POV character. This usually falls flat. Just as often, though, I’ll write a character’s physical response but forget to dig into the inner reaction to help carry the story along.

So I submit my chapters. The next day, I’ll open up them up to see a comment from Kris: “How does she feel about what just happened?” Mike has responded to Kris with something like, “I was wondering the same thing.” Inevitably, Kelli has added, “That makes three of us.”

That’s how I know I need to go back and revise.

Show and Tell

In a guest post on WritersDigest.com, author Joshua Henkin calls “show, don’t tell” the “Great Lie of Writing Workshops.” As he explains:

“A story is not a movie is not a TV show, and I can’t tell you the number of student stories I read where I see a camera panning. Movies are a perfectly good art from [sic], and they’re better at doing some things than novels are—at showing the texture of things, for instance. But novels are better at other things. At moving around in time, for example, and at conveying material that takes place in general as opposed to specific time…. But most important, novels can describe internal psychological states, whereas movies can only suggest them through dialogue and gesture (and through the almost always contrived-seeming voiceover, which is itself a borrowing from fiction).”

Showing is good. We have to show. But the best writers also embrace telling as a technique that allows them to provide much better insight into what the duck is doing down there with its little webbed feet.

As author Lee Child says, “We’re not story showers. We’re story tellers.”

Balancing Show and Tell

I’m still learning how to use both showing and telling effectively in my own writing. Honestly, it’s been difficult for me. From my work with my writing group, though, I can single out four suggestions that have really helped me improve.

1. Keep your POV character(s) in mind.

If you’re writing in first person, you’re telling pretty much all the time. The conceit of first person is that the reader is getting a direct feed of the point-of-view character’s inner monologue. This can lead to a vivid, unique voice that’s difficult to achieve from other points of view.

Stories in third person unlimited aren’t as common as they used to be. With this POV, the narrative voice drifts in and out of heads, reading the thoughts and emotional reactions of whatever character makes sense at the moment. In contrast, with third person limited the inner voice comes through a single character who is the focus of the book, chapter, or section.

Regardless of how you deal with points of view, it’s critical to consider how your characters would react to everything happening around them. Knowing your characters—their wants and needs, strengths and weaknesses, goals and regrets—is the easy part. Translating those character traits into genuine human reactions is where things get really tough.

2. Take an “all of the above” approach.

We usually start by showing. Your characters say and do things. They act and react. Even the “stage directions” that accompany your dialogue can go a long way towards portraying realistic human responses. A sidelong glance, a cock of the eyebrow, or a sudden intake of breath all say something to the reader.

Beneath all the “camera and microphone” stuff is the internal dialogue. You can present your characters’ direct thoughts (“Geez—what’s her problem?“), or you can report their thoughts in third person (“Gwendolyn wondered what Julie’s problem was.”). The things your characters notice and internally comment on can go a long way toward rounding out your POV characters’ responses.

If you do this enough, you’ll often find yourself monitoring your own thoughts and feelings, gauging your own private reactions to things as they happen to you, so you can use your responses later in your writing. Inevitably, you’ll find yourself wondering whether your personal reactions might be a little different if you weren’t watching them like a fly on the wall of your own brain.

Yeah, Heisenberg is kind of a jerk.

3. Do an “emotional response” edit pass.

My experience with my writing group has told me that I need to spend more time crafting my characters’ reactions to emotion-inducing events. As I’m getting my chapters ready for review, I set aside time to go methodically through each section, noting response-worthy moments and checking the narrative for appropriate reactions.

There are so many things to consider as you do this. Aside from your characters’ actual reactions, you have to figure out the right way to couch them in the voice you’ve chosen. In fast-paced action sequences, your characters may not have much time to respond to things. It may take a beat or two (or the end of the action) until your characters’ heads and hearts can catch up. If your story uses a “scene-sequel” structure, you may provide an immediate reflex to the emotional high points and then amplify your characters’ reactions in the scenes that follow.

However you choose to do it, explicitly tying the big moments in your story to specific reactions in your characters can solidify the impact these moments have on your reader.

4. Ask readers for help.

No matter how much effort I put into fine-tuning my characters’ responses, I always miss something. Usually multiple somethings. The amazing people in my writing group know me well enough that they instinctively look for off-key or absent reactions in the chapters I submit for review.

If you have similar challenges in your own writing, you can ask your readers to be specifically on the lookout for areas where characters’ emotional reactions don’t seem to meet their expectations. Give them a shorthand comment or a specific highlight color to use to indicate particular passages where a little telling could supplement what you’re already showing. Once others have helped identify the problem passages, go back to your characters to find out what their inner (and outer) responses should be.

My own writing has benefited from this process. I hope yours does, too.

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David-Profile-PicDavid Baker is an author, playwright, marketing professional, blogger and freelance editor. He has ghost-written several books and authored dozens of published articles on such topics as business technology, the insurance industry, marketing and data security. He writes both YA and “grown-up” fiction and is actively querying several projects. He also edits the monthly journal of a national trade organization. In his spare time, he runs marathons, shoots guns, cooks curries, paints shoes and builds things. He has an A.A. in theater, a B.A. in English and an M.A. in linguistics. Born in Arizona, raised in Hawaii, currently living in Utah, David is actively involved in theater. His stage play, Inside Al, won the Henry Fonda Young Playwright Award and premiered at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC. The play is published by Samuel French and has been in near-continuous production for more than two decades, with hundreds of performances across the US and Canada. You can find his personal blog at blog.bakerdavid.com.

Letting Your Character Tell the Story

There is a scene in my manuscript where two of the main character’s friends have a disagreement and the main character is understandably upset by this rift between her friends. When I was writing the first draft of the scene, I tried to show how upset the main character was by describing how she was feeling. I tried to make it powerful and poignant—I even included a metaphor!

And it did not work at all.

In fact, after writing the scene, I left myself a note that went something like this: “Ugh! Too melodramatic! Fix this!!”

(Yes, even my editing notes were too melodramatic. It was bad.)

I knew there was a problem with the scene, but I didn’t know how to fix it. Really, I didn’t even know what the problem was, just that there was one. I couldn’t identify what, though. After all, I was trying to show, not tell. That’s what we’re supposed to do, right? But the scene just wasn’t working.

Sometime later, my brother and I had a conversation about journal writing. He mentioned something by Arthur Henry King that stuck with me.

King said:

Abstract statements about our feelings are boring and don’t really communicate. But a plain account may communicate a great deal. If we write down faithfully what happens to us, our feelings will come through, and they will be felt indirectly and therefore truly. So rather than say how we felt on our marriage day, we should try to describe what happened to us on that marriage day. Our feelings will come through much better than if we just say how we felt.”

Huh. That was different. The more I thought about it, though, the more sense it made.

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What I was doing in that scene was trying to convey how my character was feeling through those kind of abstract statements King was talking about, and they didn’t work. Although I was trying to show how she felt, in actuality, I was trying to convince readers of it by telling them how she felt. Oh, sure, I was in her head and telling things from her perspective, but it was still telling. There are times when a story needs telling, I’ve learned, but this was not one of them.

As I revised, I tried to keep King’s statement in mind. Rather than trying to show how she was feeling through physical sensations (like stomach churning and fists clenching) or her descriptions of her emotions, I tried to stick with what actually happened in the scene from her perspective.

It works so much better. When I kept the story focused on what was happening in the scene as she would see and interpret it, the scene started coming together. It turned out that I didn’t need to think of a new, creative way to describe being upset. I didn’t even need the metaphor. What I really needed was to let my main character tell what happened in her own words.

What tips do you have for writing scenes with strong emotions? Do you have any favorite books that you feel deal with emotion well?

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20180131_162833 (4)Jenilyn Collings loves to read and is always looking for books that will make her laugh. She has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She enjoys watching Korean dramas, BBC period pieces, and thinks Avatar: the Last Airbender is the best show ever made.

Writing About Guns Without Shooting Yourself in the Foot

triggerTrigger Warning (heh): This post talks about guns and how to write about them. If that makes you squeamish, please go read something else. Thanks.

Good writing requires research. If you’re writing a story that involves open-heart surgery, you’re probably going to do some in-depth reading on the topic so you don’t get critical details wrong. If you’re writing a novel about hackers, you’ll likely want to consult with a computer expert or two to make sure you don’t embarrass yourself.

Unfortunately, too many writers ignore this advice when it comes to writing about firearms. Even well-respected authors tend to rely on what they’ve learned on the topic from movies, television and the news media. And sadly, much (if not most) of that is just plain wrong.

You don’t have to be a gun expert to write about guns. In most cases, you’re actually better off being as non-specific as possible. Getting into a lot of details about models and actions and calibers is a sure-fire way to put most of your readers to sleep. When details matter, though, it’s important to get them right. Failing to do so can turn readers off to your writing.

Whether you’re writing about guns or diamond mining or pigeon racing or square dancing, always remember:

Dave’s First Rule on Writing About Technical Details

When you mess up the technical stuff, not everyone will notice, and not everyone will care. But those who notice will care.

I have a friend who is a respected firearms instructor. He’s a walking, talking encyclopedia of firearms knowledge. A number of years ago, a best-selling author contacted him and said, “I need you to teach me about guns.” My friend spent days and days on the range with the author, teaching him everything from gun basics to marksmanship to defensive tactics.

I recently re-read this writer’s series from the beginning and it was easy to tell the exact point in the narrative where the author got his firearms training. First of all, the author named a character after my friend, so that was kind of a giveaway. Second of all, the author’s knowledge of weapons and tactics went up exponentially at exactly that point. A little knowledge went a long way.

The Language of Guns

Words, like guns, are tools … and we all know what happens when you use the wrong tool for a job. If you refer to a Glock 24 as an “automatic,” talk about inserting a “clip” into a revolver or describe a character “cocking” an AR15, you’ll reveal to your readers that you really don’t know what you’re writing about. This intrudes on the willing suspension of disbelief, and can lead to readers abandoning your narrative.

Major Categories of Guns

If you’re going to write a story that involves guns, you should probably know a few of the basics. The following definitions are adapted from the Bureau of Justice Statistics:

Handgun: A weapon with a short stock designed to be gripped by one hand, which fires a projectile from one or more barrels. (Subcategories include revolver, pistol and derringer.)

Revolver: A handgun featuring a revolving cylinder that typically holds five to ten cartridges, each within a separate chamber. Before a revolver fires, the cylinder rotates, and the next chamber is aligned with the barrel.

Pistol: Any handgun where the barrel and chamber are a single unit. Pistols can be manually operated or semiautomatic. A semiautomatic pistol generally holds cartridges in a magazine located in the grip of the gun. When the semiautomatic pistol is fired, the spent cartridge is ejected, the firing mechanism is reset, and a new cartridge is chambered.

Derringer: A small single- or multiple-shot handgun other than a revolver or semiautomatic pistol.

Rifle: A shoulder-fired weapon that uses the energy of the explosive in a fixed metallic cartridge to fire a single projectile through a rifled bore—one projectile for each pull of the trigger.

Shotgun: A shoulder-fired weapon that uses the energy of the explosive in a fixed shotgun shell to fire through a smooth bore either a number of ball shot or a single projectile for each pull of the trigger.

Note that some people call revolvers “pistols” as well—that distinction is not entirely agreed-upon. For obvious reasons, rifles and shotguns are often referred to as “long guns.”

If you’re writing historical fiction, there’s at least one other type of gun you need to know about:

Musket: A muzzle-loaded long gun that was the precursor to modern-day rifles. While rifles are distinguished by the “rifling” grooves that spin a bullet while it travels down the barrel, muskets generally feature a smooth-bored barrel.

Because of their smooth bore (and because the musket balls are often smaller than the barrels they shoot through) muskets are much less accurate than rifles. It’s said that rifles are aimed, but muskets are pointed. If you’re writing about the American Revolutionary War and you describe Redcoat soldiers “pointing their rifles” at someone, lots of your readers are going to laugh at you. The earliest muskets date back to the 1500s, and muskets were still in common use through the U.S. Civil War and even up to the turn of the last century.

Readers of historical fiction tend to be pretty particular about accuracy, so it’s worth doing some research if you want to sound informed.

Firing Action

Another way to categorize guns is by their “action,” which is a component critical to their design:

Fully automatic: A weapon capable of firing a succession of cartridges while the trigger is depressed, until the ammunition runs out or a malfunction occurs. Automatic weapons are considered “machine guns” and are highly regulated under the National Firearms Act and subsequent U.S. gun laws.

Semiautomatic: A weapon that fires a single shot each time the trigger is depressedA semiautomatic uses the energy of each fired cartridge to cycle the action and advance the next available cartridge into position for firing.

Machine gun: A fully automatic weapon that fires rifle cartridges (as opposed to handgun cartridges). Machine guns are usually designed to be shoulder-fired, and generally feature a barrel 14 inches or longer. Larger machine guns may be fired from a tripod or bipod.

Submachine gun: A simple fully automatic weapon that fires a pistol cartridge instead of a rifle cartridge. “Sub guns” are often short-barreled variants of light machine guns. Smaller submachine guns, called machine pistols, have no shoulder stock and are not designed to be fired from the shoulder.

The distinction between semiautomatic and automatic is an important one. Lots of smart people get this wrong. Plenty of famous authors get this wrong. Consistently.

The important thing to know about automatic weapons is how rare they are. They’ve been highly regulated since 1934, when Congress passed the National Firearms Act. It’s illegal for civilians to own any automatic weapon manufactured after 1986. Pre-1986 guns, when you can find them, are extremely expensive—$15,000 to $30,000 at the low end—and they require an intensive colonoscopy from the BATF to acquire.

Semiautomatic guns are a different story. They’re nothing special. In fact, the vast majority of guns sold in the U.S. are semiautomatic.

Calling a semiautomatic gun an “automatic” demonstrates either profound ignorance or an intent to deceive. Smart authors need to stop doing it.

Misunderstood Concepts

Assault Rifle vs. Assault Weapon

selective-fireAssault rifles, according to the U.S. Department of Defense, are “selective-fire weapons that fire a cartridge intermediate in power between sub-machine gun and rifle cartridges.” The “selective fire” part is the important part: a true assault rifle has a switch to select between semiautomatic and fully automatic modes. (Some assault rifles include a “three-shot burst” option as well.) This is a very specialized type of firearm, available only to military and law enforcement purchasers, virtually impossible for civilians to acquire. Roughly 99.999 percent of the time, when someone on the news is talking about “assault rifles,” they have no idea what they’re talking about.

barrel-shroudThen we have the “assault weapon.” From a functional perspective, “assault weapons” simply don’t exist. This is a purely political term coined in 1989 by anti-gun politicians who needed to classify an arbitrary group of firearms for the purpose of banning them. On both the state and federal level, “assault weapons” have been defined and redefined in contradictory ways. In many cases, the legislators creating the definitions don’t even understand what they mean. This is humorously illustrated by the famous interview with a politician who, when asked if she knew what a “barrel shroud” was, said it was “the shoulder thing that goes up.” (Spoiler alert: It’s not.)

“Assault weapon” is a completely meaningless term unless you’re writing about the politics of gun control.

It’s worth noting, by the way, that the “AR” in AR15 does not stand for “assault rifle.” It stands for “ArmaLite Rifle.” (ArmaLite was the company that originally developed the design.) An AR15 is not an assault rifle (nor is it a high-powered rifle). In truth, it’s a garden-variety semiautomatic that shoots a middling cartridge (.223 or 5.56x45mm NATO) that looks a lot like a military weapon but isn’t.

Magazine vs. Clip

mags-clipsThis is another one lots of writers get wrong.

Clip: A device that makes it easy to insert multiple rounds of ammunition into a gun’s magazine.

Magazine: A device that feeds ammunition into a gun’s action. Some guns have internal magazines, while other magazines are removable. The term is often truncated to mag.

If you’re talking about the rectangular thing filled with ammo that pops into the grip of a handgun, you’re talking about a magazine, not a clip.

Bullets, Shells, Rounds

If you buy ammunition for a rifle or handgun, you’re buying cartridges or rounds. Each cartridge consists of a brass or steel casing (or shell), a bullet or projectile (usually lead, sometimes jacketed in copper), a primer and propellant (also called a charge). Ammunition comes in lots of different sizes, and you have to use the right caliber and cartridge for the gun you’re shooting. Some common handgun cartridges include .45 ACP, .40 S&W, 9mm Parabellum, .380 ACP, .38 Special, and .22 LR (which is also a rifle caliber). Common rifle cartridges include .22 LR, .223, .243 Winchester, .22-250 Remington, .30-30 Winchester, and .30-06 Springfield. There are literally hundreds of different caliber/cartridge combinations.

If you buy ammo for a shotgun, you’re buying shotgun shells, or shotshells. Shotshells are measured in gauge, not caliber. The most common are 12-gauge and 20-gauge. A shotshell is generally a plastic casing with a metallic base, which contains the primer and propellant (or charge). A plastic or felt wad helps keep the powder in place. In front of that is the shot (multiple pellets or BBs) or slug (a single, big-ass bullet). Shotshells are subcategorized by the size of their shot, with birdshot and buckshot being the most common.

Incidentally, ammunition is referred to as rounds because … bullets used to be round.

Other Considerations

Counting Rounds

Don’t tell anyone in Hollywood, but guns don’t come pre-loaded with an unlimited supply of bullets. If you write a gunfight, you need to know the capacity of the gun or its magazine, and then keep track of how many rounds have been fired (and where they went). Does your character carry additional mags or speed-loaders? If not, your character is limited to the ammunition already in the gun.

Most handguns, when they run out of ammunition, don’t go “click, click, click” when the trigger is pulled. Many revolvers do this, but most semiautomatic pistols don’t. In most cases, when a semiautomatic handgun runs out, its slide locks open. Pulling the trigger will do nothing.

Oh, and anyone who’s ever bought a gun knows they’re not cheap. You don’t throw your empty gun at the bad guy when you’re out of ammo. That’s ridiculous.

Manual Safeties

A manual safety is a mechanism built into a gun that, when switched to safe, makes the gun incapable of firing. Some guns have them and some don’t. One guaranteed way to make a lot of your readers roll their eyes is to write about a character unholstering a Glock and clicking off the safety. Glocks don’t have manual safeties. Most revolvers don’t, either.

Most modern handguns (including Glocks) do have multiple integrated passive safety mechanisms to help prevent accidental discharges. These include hammer blocks, firing pin blocks, grip safeties and trigger safeties. This type of safety can’t be switched on or off, so if you mention a character flicking a safety, make sure the gun you’ve put in his or her hands actually has one.

Working the Action

You know the scene where the bad guy appears and the cop racks his slide or pumps the action of his shotgun in dramatic fashion?

Yeah, that’s stupid. Just about anyone legally carrying a gun will have “one in the pipe”—a round already chambered. This is especially the case if the person is a law enforcement officer. Working the action with a round in the chamber just ejects a perfectly good catridge onto the ground.

Hollywood does this all the time because it looks and sounds dramatic. But it’s not realistic.

Guns Are Loud

You know that scene where your protagonist runs into some bad guys, exchanges gunfire, and then hides in a closet or something listening intently for footsteps on the stairs?

That’s bullcrap. Guns are LOUD—especially in enclosed spaces. If your character fires a gun without hearing protection, he or she won’t be hearing anything but a nasty ringing sound for half an hour or so. At the very least, your characters won’t be whispering to each other just moments later, because they won’t be able to hear the whispers.

“Silencers”

You know that scene where the hit man shoots his “silenced” gun and there’s a tiny little sound like a mouse fart and the target collapses to the ground? Complete bullcrap.

Earlier this year, a prominent U.S. politician tweeted: “When someone gets shot by a gun with a silencer, it’s quiet. Witnesses might not hear. Police will be less likely to track down the shooter.” This is exactly the type of thing you expect from someone who learned everything they know about guns from Hollywood.

First of all, “Silencer” is the name of a specific product created by Maxim in the early 1900s. The generic term is suppressor. Suppressors are regulated by the National Firearms Act, the same law that controls the sale and distribution of automatic weapons.

Second of all, a suppressor only partially reduces the sound created by the rapid expansion of gasses at the muzzle of a gun. It doesn’t do anything for the telltale crack that occurs when a bullet reaches supersonic speed (1,127 feet per second, at sea level). Most suppressors reduce a gun’s noise output by about 30 dB—just enough to shoot without hearing protection and avoid permanent hearing loss.

If your character fires a big handgun (say, a 1911 chambered in .45 ACP), each shot generates up to 162 dB of noise trauma. Suppressing such a gun can “silence” it to around 132 dB, which is still louder than the noisiest rock concert or NASCAR race. A suppressed .22 rifle could be as quiet as 112 dB, or even a little less if low-powered subsonic ammunition is used. But that’s still roughly the same noise output as a household leafblower.

Any gunshot, suppressed or unsuppressed, is going to be heard by the people in the next room—and probably across the street. Suppressors don’t “silence” anything. They just muffle really really loud noises so they’re only really loud.

Most People Can’t Shoot

Seriously—most people can’t hit the broad side of a barn from 50 paces. And yes, this often includes law enforcement.

Shooting is a skill. It’s one that must be perfected through hours of training and practice. A top competitive shooter can blow through 25,000 or more rounds of ammunition in a year. Military snipers will shoot far fewer rounds, though they make every round count. Also, to be fair, their ammunition is much more expensive.

By comparison, most police officers shoot fewer than 200 rounds per year. Law enforcement qualifying tests are notoriously easy to pass, and most departments allow their officers to retake the tests as often as needed. It’s not hard to find stories of extremely poor shooting by law enforcement personnel. In one notorious case, two NYPD officers fired 16 total rounds to take down a single bad guy … while also managing to wound nine innocent bystanders.

I don’t mean to knock LEOs. Sure, they carry weapons, but their primary role is to investigate crimes, not prevent them. Most departments have very little budget for live fire training. Also, most officers never fire a single shot while on duty, and many don’t do much shooting outside of the qualifying range.

If your character is a firearms noob in a high-pressure situation, he or she probably won’t be pulling off amazing feats of marksmanship—especially at distances beyond a couple of yards.

Even in the hands of a trained shooter, handguns are only accurate for so far. You know that scene where James Bond shoots down a helicopter from a moving boat with a single shot from his Walther PPK? Total baloney.

Kinetic Energy

A person doesn’t get blown back 20 feet when hit by a bullet. This may look dramatic, but it ain’t realistic. A bullet just doesn’t have enough kinetic energy to do something like that.

There are plenty of videos on YouTube showing the effects of bullets on ballistic gel (an analog for human tissue) or animal corpses. I won’t post any links here, but it’s really easy to find that kind of thing, if you need to know more.

Shooting to Disarm or Wound

You know that scene where the cop takes careful aim and shoots the gun out of the hand of the bad guy? Pure nonsense. Likewise, the whole “shoot the bad guy in the leg to wound him” thing is complete hogwash.

Anyone with any law enforcement or self-defense training knows that you don’t “shoot to wound.” You “shoot to stop the threat.” If a situation calls for the use of deadly force, a trained shooter will aim for center mass, or the middle of the torso. Aiming for a person’s gun hand only increases the likelihood that a defender will miss and hit an innocent person. It also increases the chance that the shot will miss, and the defender will end up being hit by return fire.

Character Counts

Much of this goes out the window if you’re writing in the voice of a character who doesn’t know much about guns. In the movie “Stand by Me” (which is based on a fantastic novella by Stephen King), Chris Chambers shows his friends his father’s 1911 service pistol, which he’s brought along on their journey. Gordie asks, “Ya got shells for it?” It’s totally the wrong word, but Gordie is a kid and he probably doesn’t know better.

We don’t expect Gordie to know the difference between a cartridge and a shotshell. But when a soldier or police officer in your story uses incorrect terminology, it sets off warning bells. Similarly, no trained shooter who wants to actually hit his target would hold a handgun “gangsta style,” but a gangbanger (or a wannabe who’s watched Boyz N the Hood too many times) might actually do that.

If your characters are going to display their ignorance of guns, it’s a good idea to cue your reader that the mistakes they make are the characters’ mistakes … and not yours.

John picked up an empty magazine and tested the spring. “How many bullets does the clip hold?”

“It’s a standard thirty-round mag,” Mary said, trying to hide her irritation. “Why?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Just curious, I guess.” He picked up the rifle and fiddled with the charging handle. “Is this how you cock it?”

“John!” Mary yelped, pushing the muzzle aside. “Stop being an idiot and put that thing down!”

What to Do?

Are you feeling overwhelmed yet?

No amount of research can equal the experience of sending rounds downrange. If you’re going to write about guns, you owe it to yourself to actually do some shooting so you know what it feels like. And you don’t have to pay a firearms instructor to for one-on-one time at the range. Practically everybody has a friend who’s part of the “gun culture.” It might be that friend of yours who’s a hunter, your cousin in law enforcement, or a neighbor who’s a competitive shooter. Just approach the person and say: “I really want to get a little experience with guns. If I pay for the ammunition, would you take me shooting?”

From my experience, most gun owners love to take newbies shooting. Make sure you go somewhere safe and always follow the Four Rules of gun safety.

Finally, if your story involves a lot of firearms, invite a knowledgeable shooter to be a beta reader. Ask your reader to pay special attention to the gun-related content in the manuscript. Your story will benefit from having an expert double-checking the details.

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Postscript: I like to practice what I preach, so I had my friend (the one mentioned at the top of this post) check my work in advance of publication. He made some great suggestions, which I have incorporated into this piece. He also asked me to be a guest on his weekly radio program. You can listen to the program here. It’s the 1-06-18 show. My segment starts around 00:11:50.

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David-Profile-PicDavid Baker is an author, playwright, marketing professional, blogger and freelance editor. He has ghost-written several books and authored dozens of published articles on such topics as business technology, the insurance industry, marketing and data security. He writes both YA and “grown-up” fiction and is actively querying several projects. He also edits the monthly journal of a national trade organization. In his spare time, he runs marathons, shoots guns, cooks curries, paints shoes and builds things. He has an A.A. in theater, a B.A. in English and an M.A. in linguistics. Born in Arizona, raised in Hawaii, currently living in Utah, David is actively involved in theater. His stage play, Inside Al, won the Henry Fonda Young Playwright Award and premiered at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC. The play is published by Samuel French and has been in near-continuous production for more than two decades, with hundreds of performances across the US and Canada. You can find his personal blog at blog.bakerdavid.com.

The Art of Dropping Breadcrumbs

By Annette Lyon

Imagine that you’re reading an Agatha Christie novel. In the last chapter, Poirot calls the cops, tells them who committed the murder, and goes on his way, saying that of course everyone knows why Jeremy Jones is the one being carted off to jail.

TTOF - Breadcrumbs

After your confusion clears, you’d probably hurl the book against the wall in frustration. (Unless you were reading on a Kindle, in which case, you’d delete the dang thing with a strong click.)

Every story has mysteries and story questions. One of the biggest jobs a writer has is making sure that as the mysteries are revealed and the questions are answered, the reader isn’t confused to the point of book throwing. Continue reading

Survey Analysis: How Far Is Too Far? How Much Is Too Much?

YA-bobby-socks-puppy-lovetIn my post from last month, “How Far Is Too Far? How Much Is Too Much?” I talked about how authors of young adult books are including more profanity, sexual situations, drug use, and other controversial content in their novels. I was really curious to find out in greater detail what readers of all ages thought about various difficult topics. Leveraging Google Forms and Sheets, I created a survey to find out.

The survey was both a success and a failure. On the plus side, I got almost 200 responses, which was more than I expected. On the negative side, only six of those responses were from actual young adults. The rest were from grownups (18 and older) who read young adult literature.

I promised to provide an analysis of the results, so here they are. Please note that I’m not claiming statistical significance here. I’m not a stats person, though I do consider myself something of an Excel ninja. Though it’s interesting, I would caution against reading too much into the data I present below. When in doubt, write the book you want to write.

Respondents

From sharing my results with various groups, I managed to get a total of 195 responses. The demographic section of the survey tells us a little about the people who completed it.

Age

As I mentioned above, the overwhelming majority of people who responded to the survey were adults. The breakdown by age category is here:

Age Category

Respondents

Percent

12 – 14 years old

1

0.5%

15 – 17 years old

5

2.6%

18 – 29 years old

28

14.4%

30 – 39 years old

94

48.2%

40+ years old

67

34.4%

Gender

The overwhelming majority (86%) of respondents were female. Here’s the full breakdown:

Gender

Respondents

Percent

Female

167

85.6%

Male

27

13.8%

Something else, or I prefer not to answer

1

0.5%

Last year, I was at a writing conference, attending a panel about writing young adult fiction. During the Q&A, a woman stood up and asked the question: “What can be done about the perception that YA is dominated by females?” I actually laughed out loud when I heard this. All four panelists were women. Maybe 80% of the audience were female. This isn’t a “perception” … it’s a reality.

Location

Survey respondents came from 27 US states, plus some international locations. However, because of my circle of friends (and also because of the groups where I went to solicit responses), the vast majority of the responses (54%) came from people who live in Utah.

Here’s the breakdown of how many responses came from each location;

Alabama (1), Alaska (1), Arizona (14), California (7), Colorado (4), Hawaii (4), Idaho (11), Illinois (1), Indiana (2), Louisiana (1), Maryland (1), Michigan (3), Minnesota (1), Nevada (5), New Mexico (1), New York (2), North Carolina (1), Ohio (1), Oklahoma (1), Oregon (4), South Carolina (1), Tennessee (2), Texas (8), Utah (105), Virginia (2), Washington (5), Wyoming (1), Other or International (5)

Average number of books read per month

I thought it would be interesting to know whether the respondents were voracious or more casual readers. Because of this, the survey asked how many books, on average, each of the respondents read.

Books per Month

Respondents

Percent

less than 1

17

8.7%

1 or 2

50

25.6%

3 or 4

64

32.8%

five or more

64

32.8%

Percentage of books read in the young adult genre

Finally, I asked what percentage of books each of the respondents read in the young adult genre.

Books in the YA Genre

Respondents

Percent

less than 25%

33

76.9%

25 to 50%

79

40.5%

51 to 75%

45

23.1%

75% or more

38

19.5%

Methodology

Using the word “methodology” automatically makes things more scientific, right? Well, probably not, but I did have a method to my madness. For every topic or subject matter in the main section of the survey, I asked respondents to rate their comfort level using the following rating scale:

  1. Very uncomfortable. I actively avoid books like this, and won’t read them at all.
  2. Uncomfortable. I have a low tolerance for books like this, and sometimes stop reading if I encounter the topic.
  3. Moderately comfortable. I don’t seek out books like this, but I don’t avoid them if the story is good.
  4. Comfortable. I don’t mind reading books like this, and often enjoy them.
  5. Very comfortable. I enjoy reading books like this, sometimes seeking them out specifically.

To analyze the responses, I considered a 1 or 2 to be negative (discomfort) and a 4 or 5 to be positive (comfort). The 3 responses were neutral, so I ignored them for the purposes of analysis. Using this methodology, I created Pro/Con comparison for each item, and then compared them as percentages.

As an example, the first question asked the respondents’ comfort levels with “Bible” curse words like “damn” and “hell.” (I actually asterisked them on the survey so nobody could complain about being exposed to profanity). In the results, I got 60 5s, 63 4s, 61 3s, 8 2s and 3 1s. (Yes, three people indicated they were “Very uncomfortable” with encountering the words “damn” and “hell” in a YA novel. Go figure.) Adding the 4s and 5s and the 1s and 2s together, I got a Pro score of 123 and a Con score of 11, or 91.8% Pro and 8.2% Con. Make sense?

So let’s look at the individual sections and scores. To reduce clutter, I’ll provide just the Pro and Con tallies and percentages for each item. However, you’ll find a link to a PDF with the full scoring at the bottom of this post.

Language

I grouped the questions about language into three categories: “Bible” curse words, scatalogical and “body part” curse words, and F-bombs (which my teenaged son calls the “Elder Swear”). The results didn’t really surprise me:

Language

Pro %

Con %

Stories with characters who use “Bible” curse words (d**n, h**l)

91.8%

8.2%

Stories with characters who use scatalogical or “body part” curse words (s**t, a**, d**k, c**k, c**t, p***y)

30.5%

69.5%

Stories with characters who drop F-bombs (f**k)

23.2%

76.8%

On one of the groups where I posted this survey, a group member took me to task for grouping words like “shit” and “ass” in with the body part swear words. The names for female body parts, she claimed, were used more for sexual power games than for curse words. I can see her point (to a point), but I was just trying to do a survey, not make a statement about gender politics.

Sexual Content

As far as I can tell, one thing that distinguishes young adult from middle grade fiction is the introduction of sexual situations. (Sometimes, when meeting other writers, I like to joke that I write “middle-grade erotica.” It’s just fun to see the looks on their faces as they try to parse that.) As in all of the categories, I ordered the items based on what I expected the relative comfort/discomfort levels to be.

Sexual Content

Pro %

Con %

Stories with lots of sexual content but no actual sex between teens

42.9%

57.1%

Stories that talk frankly about pornography and masturbation

12.8%

87.2%

Stories depicting hetero sex between teens

19.9%

80.1%

Stories depicting sex between teens and adults

7.8%

92.2%

Stories depicting taboo sex involving teens (incest, BDSM, etc.)

5.5%

94.5%

One aspect of the results surprised me: overall, the respondents were slightly more comfortable reading stories about actual sex than about pornography and masturbation. I don’t know why, but I was really taken aback to see that readers found simulated, solitary sex more disturbing than the real thing.

The last question in this section is interesting in the sense that it doesn’t seem that the “Fifty Shades of Gray” phenomenon has trickled down to the YA reader. E.L. James’ books pushed BDSM into the mainstream to a certain degree, but that’s not happening for adult readers of YA fiction.

LGBTQ+ Content

Like it or not, young adult fiction tends to be heteronormative in the sense that it assumes that most boys like girls and most girls like boys. (It reflects the real world in this way.) Since I personally know a number of readers who intentionally steer clear of books with gay and lesbian protagonists, I figured it made sense to ask these questions separately.

LGBTQ+ Content

Pro %

Con %

Stories with major LGBTQ+ characters, in which the characters’ orientation is incidental to the plot

57.7%

42.3%

Stories with major LGBTQ+ characters, in which the characters’ orientation is crucial to the plot (including “coming out” stories)

39.9%

60.1%

Stories with minor LGBTQ+ characters

73.8%

26.2%

Stories depicting sex between LGBTQ+ teens

13.0%

87.0%

Stories depicting sex between LGBTQ+ teens and adults

5.9%

94.1%

YA readers seem to be more accepting of LGBTQ main characters if their sexuality isn’t directly tied to the plot. The big difference in comfort levels between the first and second items above kind of surprised me. Minor gay and lesbian characters (I was careful not to use the word “token”) seem to be more acceptable to more readers.

Substance Abuse

I remember being shocked, as a young teenager, reading about teenagers drinking and smoking in The Outsiders. I was probably 13 when I discovered that book, and nobody in my sheltered circle of friends did any of that stuff. My kids had a very different experience. In my kids’ school, vaping and seems to have replaced smoking as the default bad-habit-du-jour.

And remember: The Outsiders was published in 1967. Teens have always smoked and boozed and used drugs.

Substance Abuse

Pro %

Con %

Stories depicting teenagers smoking or vaping

64.2%

35.8%

Stories depicting recreational drug use by teens

38.0%

62.0%

Stories depicting alcohol use by teens

50.4%

49.6%

Stories depicting the abuse of prescription drugs by teens

42.1%

57.9%

Stories depicting the sale or purchase of illicit drugs by teens

36.8%

63.2%

I actually expected the Pro scores here to be a little higher. It’s possible that the older audience skewed the numbers here to the Con side.

Mental Illness

There has been a huge effort over the past several decades to destigmatize mental illness. In the past several years, I’ve read YA books with protagonists who have Tourette syndrome, with severe depression, and even sociopathy. Readers seem to see mental illnesses as just another obstacle for characters to overcome.

Mental Illness

Pro %

Con %

Stories focusing on protagonists dealing with mental illnesses

95.1%

4.9%

Stories that prominently feature self-harm (cutting and other self-injury)

52.5%

47.5%

Stories focusing on protagonists who have eating disorders

85.5%

14.5%

Stories depicting characters with suicidal thoughts or who attempt suicide

68.1%

31.9%

The one surprise here is the balanced Pro/Con score for self-harm. From what I can tell, in the United states, around 6-10 percent of teenagers intentionally hurt themselves, with “cutting” being the most common activity of this type. At the same time, less than 3 percent of of teens struggle with eating disorders. With self-harm being two or even three times more common than eating disorders among U.S. teens, you’d think it would be a topic more people would be comfortable reading about. Not so, apparently. That self-harm is significantly less acceptable to readers than suicide should be an eye-opening fact.

Abuse and Violence

I’m not certain I got the questions in this category “right.” Violence is a staple of growing up—kids beat up on each other all the time. I tried to think of the types of abusive situations that might cause someone to put a book down.

Abuse and Violence

Pro %

Con %

Stories depicting sexual abuse involving teens or children

17.9%

82.1%

Stories depicting sexual assault involving teens or children

19.5%

80.5%

Stories depicting domestic violence

43.1%

56.9%

Stories depicting other kinds of violent situations

68.1%

31.9%

Interestingly, the Pro/Con rating for sexual assault is within half a point of the rating for hetero teenaged sex (see above). And the readers I polled are more comfortable reading about sexual assault than about consensual sex between LGBTQ teens. That last question is kind of a catch-all, and doesn’t really say much about anything.

Social Issues

Speaking of catch-alls, this last category was exactly that.

Social Issues

Pro %

Con %

Stories involving bullying (real-world or cyber)

92.2%

7.8%

Stories involving racism, racial discrimination or racial inequality

89.3%

10.7%

Stories involving sexism, sexual discrimination or sexual inequality

83.2%

16.8%

Stories in which teens talk about or get an abortion

46.6%

53.4%

Stories involving firearms

88.5%

11.5%

Stories with heavy political content

67.8%

32.2%

The bullying question was a gimme. Bullying is so pervasive in all aspects of teenagerhood that I would defy anyone to come up with a single YA novel that didn’t feature bullying of some kind.

I wasn’t surprised by the Pro/Con ratings on the “ism” questions. I was pretty surprised that my respondents were more comfortable reading about teenagers with guns than they were about teenagers getting abortions. (But then, I had a very Utah-heavy population that responded.) The question about politics was also interesting. I wasn’t expecting a two-thirds Pro rating on that one, though I’m not sure whether I expected it to be higher or lower.

 

Conclusion

Again, since this turned out to be essentially a poll of adults, I’m not sure how much we can extrapolate regarding teen readers. It’s worth pointing out, though, that adult readers of YA fiction are often the “gatekeepers” who buy the books, put them on library shelves, assign them for classes, and so on. So grownup attitudes about young adult fiction are still worth considering.

You can download a more detailed analysis of numbers below. Enjoy!

YA Fiction – How Edgy Is Too Edgy?

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David-Profile-PicDavid Baker is an author, playwright, marketing professional, blogger and freelance editor. He has ghost-written several books and authored dozens of published articles on such topics as business technology, the insurance industry, marketing and data security. He writes both YA and “grown-up” fiction and is actively querying several projects. He also edits the monthly journal of a national trade organization. In his spare time, he runs marathons, volunteers with young people, cooks curries, paints shoes and builds things. He has an A.A. in theater, a B.A. in English and an M.A. in linguistics. Born in Arizona, raised in Hawaii, currently living in Utah, David is actively involved in theater. His stage play, Inside Al, won the Henry Fonda Young Playwright Award and premiered at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC. The play was subsequently published by Samuel French and has been in near-continuous production for more than two decades, with hundreds of performances across the US and Canada. You can find his personal blog at blog.bakerdavid.com.

Mindful Details: Paying Attention to the World Around You

How many times do you find yourself in a waiting room, on a bus, sitting outside a restaurant waiting for the rest of your party . . . and to pass the time, you pull out your phone. You might be thinking it’s the perfect opportunity to catch up on social media or to shoot off some emails you’ve been procrastinating on. Maybe you’re playing a game or reading an e-book.

We all do this. I know I’m guilty of it. Actually, I shouldn’t use the word “guilty” here, because I, for one, see nothing wrong with this. I’m not here to shake my fist in the air and shout to the world that electronic devices are destroying human interaction, yada yada yada. (I actually believe they’ve brought people closer together in some ways, but that’s another post for another blog).

Nope, I’m not going to chastise anyone for playing a game of Candy Crush while sitting at the bus stop. I might, however, be so bold as to say that frittering away the “boring” moments of life on our phones is wasting an opportunity to improve our writing skills. When was the last time you kept your phone in your pocket and just sat, observing and experiencing the world around you? When was the last time you were fully mindful of your surroundings? When did you pay attention–really pay attention to the people passing by?

File Jul 20, 11 07 36 PM

While at an art museum this last weekend, my friend, who’d recently moved into the town in which I was visiting her, was asking the woman at the front desk if she had any recommendations of other things to do in the area. They talked for a long time, and I sort of let myself fall off to the background. At first, I busied myself taking pictures of the cool architecture in the lobby, then posting the pics onto Instagram. But eventually, as the two continued to chat, I became fascinated by the way the woman’s heavy jewelry clacked with every movement she made. And she moved a lot. She was animated, talking with her hands. I watched for a while, wondering how it didn’t bother her, deciding it would certainly bother me. And then . . . it occurred to me that I could use this for one of my characters. I excused myself, pulled out my phone again, opened up a note app, and wrote the description down.

The next time you have the opportunity to people watch, take it. See if you can find at least one unique detail about a person, whether it’s a distinctive article of clothing that hints at their personality, the way they carry themselves, what their voice sounds like, what they smell like (if they’re close enough)–and write it down. (One caveat: don’t be obvious about it. You never know how someone might react. I take no responsibility for any black eyes.)

Don’t stop with people. Be mindful of scenery too. Of the feel of a room when you enter it for the first time. Of the sounds of wildlife outside your window bright and early in the morning. Don’t push these observations to the background as you go about your day. Keep your eyes, ears, and nose open and really take it all in. Then write it down. Even if you don’t have a place for a particular observation in your current project, it’s good practice anyway.

One more thing: don’t focus only on the strange and/or unique. Focus on the mundane as well. Some of the best writing I’ve read has been able to transport me into a scene via one or two simple sensory details of something as plain as the sticky feel of over-waxed wood beneath fingertips, or the citrus scent and fizz of bubbles in a sink full of soapy dishes. You can feel that wood yourself now, can’t you? Because we’ve all felt it at one time or another. You can smell that dish soap and hear that faint crackle of foam, and now, you’re in the scene. These are mindful details. And the more often you take the time out to pay attention to the world around you, the more often these details will seep into your writing, making it so much stronger.

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File Jan 15, 5 15 03 PM.jpegWhen she’s not writing, revising, or banging her head on the keyboard (it’s all the same, right?), Megan Paasch can be found playing her ukulele (badly), knitting (rarely anymore, unfortunately), or herding two amazing, but rowdy little boys (pretty much constantly) with her husband. A native to the Pacific Northwest, Megan earned her B.A. in History from the University of Washington. (Go Huskies!) Her favorite history subjects were, and still are, Women in History, the Tudors, and the Celts. You can read more about her here.

 

Building Blocks of Character: Part 1

Building Block pt 1

This is a middle grade manuscript. It has Issues.

Building Blocks pic1

Based on feedback from a recent round of submissions, its characters are getting a makeover.

Of course there are plenty of other Issues I could tackle, but for this revision I’m focusing on making the main characters more well-developed and relatable.

art-of-character-200To research this topic, I’ve been reading THE ART OF CHARACTER by David Corbett.   It’s a fantastic resource, but I’m only about halfway through because it’s absolutely packed with expert advice and spot-on writing exercises. So today’s post will be part one of a two-part series on the building blocks of character, based on what I’ve learned from Corbett’s work. That should give me plenty of incentive to finish the book (and my revisions) by early April.

(And don’t forget Friday’s excellent post by Rosalyn Eves about creating strong characters.)

Where do characters come from? Most do not simply waltz onto the page, fully formed. Corbett writes that characters typically stem from five main sources:

  1. The story
  2. The unconscious
  3. Inspiration from art, music, or nature
  4. Real people
  5. Composite characters

Each source has pros and cons, so it’s common for writers to use some combination of these. But it’s more than a matter of throwing traits at the wall to see what sticks. There should be thought and purpose behind who a character is, and why. We must tread carefully when it comes to common character tropes, e.g. the angry loner, the self-centered jock, the bookish nerd. A character will not feel real or relatable unless we as writers look beyond the usual stereotypes to create more layered, nuanced portrayals. And while it may feel innovative to write a character who’s both devastatingly handsome and painfully shy, or a picky eater who’s also a master chef, keep in mind that readers will cry foul when a character rings false or strains credibility.

Next, characters require a driving need, desire, or end goal. Especially the main character. Without one, your story will languish without momentum or urgency. Readers want to care about your protagonist and her journey, whether it’s across the ocean or across the street.

The obstacles that stand in the way of a character’s goal(s) create richness and texture on the page. Hidden traits come to light as the protagonist tackles these challenges. As writers, Corbett counsels that we must allow our characters to develop organically as the story unfolds. They must be allowed to surprise us—and ultimately the reader—with the choices they make.

Finally, Corbett maintains that in order to more fully understand our characters, authors need a measure of self-awareness. That is, we need the ability to view our own emotional lives through an objective lens: to analyze our desires, our weaknesses and disappointments, and then be willing to explore, embellish, and expose them on the page in the form of fictional characters. Easy, right? While it may sound daunting, the end result is that elusive realism and relatability that we all work so hard to achieve.

One simple tip that resonated with me was to use photographs to create a more fully formed picture of a character in your mind.

I happened to have a stack of antique photos purchased from a yard sale, so I dug them out of storage. They are fascinating in their own right, but even more so when viewed with the purpose of picking out a face to use for my main character, Milo.

Here’s the photo I chose:

Building Blocks pic3

After the pic sat on my desk for a few weeks, staring at me with those knowing eyes, I realized this boy is not Milo. He’s Charles, the protagonist for my next middle grade book, which I’m also working on as time permits.

Though it took me by surprise, I didn’t mind this little wrinkle at all. Inspiration is inspiration, and by its very nature is unpredictable.

I still haven’t found just the right photo for Milo, but I’m always keeping an eye out. In the meantime, I’m trying to more consciously gather material for both current and future projects. Every note, every photo, every observation becomes a potential building block for creating memorable, relatable characters.

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Growing up, Christine Hayes loved reading stories about creatures that curl your toes and legends that send a shiver down your spine. Now she loves writing about them, too. Her debut novel, MOTHMAN’S CURSE, was released in June 2015 through Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan. Christine seeks inspiration by haunting flea markets and estate sales, searching for cool vintage finds with a story to tell. While earning her degree in music she visited Asia for the first time, and later moved there with her family for several years. She has been addicted to travel ever since. Christine and her clan now live in northern Utah. Find her online at www.christinehayesbooks.com.