Thursday, May 21, 2009

Show and tell--on a high school level

Whenever one of my books is published, my friend, a former and still missed member of my writing group, calls to ask if I will talk to her writing class, which is in a high school that ranks among the top in our state. I always say yes, and regret it until it’s over, when I decide it wasn’t so bad after all.

The first time I went I brought a box with me; evidence of what it takes to become a published writer. I had a folder full of rejection letters, displaying the range from a sloppily scribbled “No!” on my query letter, to a poorly photocopied form letter, to the best: faint praise with a “Sorry, not for us. Good luck.”

I also included in the box a print-out of the first forty-page version of the book. It had been printed on perforated computer paper with holes on the side to move it through the printer. The book came out in 2002, long after printers required such paper. To say the book took a while to get published is an understatement.

I brought with me some sample chapters marked up by my writing group and I explained the value of a critique partner. I showed an old copy of The Writers Market which their teacher had given me. She, too, is a writer, an excellent one, but not actively working on her writing. It was a choice she made when she went back to teaching.

I also pulled out from the box a small notebook that I used to write notes to myself of ideas that randomly came to me. I showed off my light-up pen, a present from my husband which was as much a gift to himself as to me. If I had something important to jot down during the night, I could do so without awakening him. Lastly, I pulled out the corrected proof of my first book, and admitted how embarrassing it had been to see my name on the top of every left hand page, like I had any right to brag so many times.

I don’t think I really wowed anyone during that first school visit with the tools of the trade, or the detritus from my efforts to get published. I didn’t bring the box a second time.
Over the years I have refined my presentation. Now I speak about my efforts to create characters people love, settings that feel real, and situations that keep people turning the page. I mention what fun I have when the characters surprise me and start doing their own thing. I talk about the long hours and never-ending task of editing and refining my work so it is the best it can be.

I think I am in a better position now to explain the process. Speaking about it this time, in reference to my newest book, Vengeance Runs Cold, the fifth in the Wally Morris mystery series, I could explain the inspiration for the book. It was as simple as water damage in the wall of my basement. All I had to do was imagine the who, the where, the what, the how, and, most importantly, the why (as aside from the obvious--a leak somewhere) and I had enough material for my story. Writing isn’t so easy, I told those young writers whom I’d been reluctant to face, but it is definitely worth the effort.


I.J. Parnham said...

This is an oblique question, but to the best of my knowledge there's no great tradition of show and tell in most schools around the world. I've only ever seen it on American tv shows, but I assume from your post it is a common thing.

Now, many writers, including myself, struggle when they first come across the standard piece of writing advice to show and not tell and I've often wondered if that might be because for some of us it's not a concept that's been taught or a phrase that's in common use. Does this theory hold up? Did those here who are familiar with show and tell in school grasp the concept with ease when applied to writing, perhaps even recalling school sessions, or is this a pet theory I should quietly forget?

Beate Boeker said...

I've only ever heard the sentence "show, don't tell", when I started to delve deeper into writing (in English). From what I see, that concept is not taught in Germany. I thought it was a good sentence, though, that makes sense and makes it clear what is wanted. Now I sometimes find it hard to come back from all those moving eyebrows and to state simply that someone looks stunned. :-) I loved the idea with the box! It shows how much hard work went into that career!

Elisabeth Rose said...

I don't remember the 'show don't tell' phrase from school. I first heard it in relation to romance writing when I started reading articles about writing for the genre.

We never had show and tell sessions at school either and neither did my children. In my day it was 'sit there and be quiet.'

Joani Ascher said...

Hmmm. I guess I took it for granted that people universally had show and tell, which they start in pre-school here, as a background. It is, in some ways, an easy introduction into public speaking. But don't worry about it if you didn't do it as a child--it doesn't automatically make those who have experienced it know how to "Show, don't tell" in writing.

LaVerne St. George said...

I had lots of "show and tell" practice in elementary school, but it took a long time to translate that to the "Show, Don't Tell" of writing. I finally started to get a handle on it when a fellow writer asked, "What does the emotion LOOK like?" I tell you I hate you, but what behavior, what facial expressions, what tone of voice completely reinforces what I told you? I like a book by Ann Hood called "Creating Character Emotions". She takes each emotion and presents examples of how to "show" it.

By the way, I loved the box idea, Joani. I think it would work well as a reality check for writers. Then giving the flip side, the creative joy, the excitement of characters, would be an interesting presentation. Hm-m-m.

Carol Hutchens said...

As a former high school teacher, I admire you for volunteering for your friend's class. High schoolers are a hard audience.

Your show and tell box might not have blown them away...but it was a great tool for a reality check. Like the idea.

Joani Ascher said...

I'm even crazier than you think. I agreed to do three periods next week at the local high school, no agenda, just be in the library. Luckily, my children are long out of the school, so there's no danger of embarrassing them, just me. Maybe I should bring the box.