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Book I, Part II: Show and Tell

(Reblogged from the Chapterhouse Blog)

It’s a famous adage of writing that you should show and not tell.

The more subtle distinction is where is it better to skim and allude, and where should you have action, dialogue and plenty of ‘show’?

editing diaries 2This is a particular issue for me, since the series of books I’m working on, of which I am now editing the second part of the third volume, are a set of interlinking stories from different perspectives. This means a few scenes are covered more than once. Only two scenes appear in all three trilogies, but nonetheless the temptation, when something has had a lot of detail in one part, is to skim when it appears again. Which is what (wicked thing that I am) I did. But the editor made the (eminently sensible) suggestion that in cases like feasts and dances the reader feels somewhat cheated out of the sense of occasion. These are opportunities for vivid atmosphere and detail. And I was skimming over them, because I had written that scene before from a different angle. More fool me! Because here was another opportunity I was missing to do the most fun part of this writing process – reimagining different moments through different perspectives.

It was also immensely helpful to know where more description, or more detail, would be helpful. Since the editing of Morgan had been mainly focussed on cutting down something that had got out of control lengthwise in the first-drafting process, and The Empty Throne didn’t have that problem, I was faced with a new challenge – what had I reported in this book that needed describing? It was immensely helpful to have an outsider point out where description was slowing down the action, and where more description would be better.

Show and tell. Each has its place – you can’t describe everything that ever happens; you waste moments if you skip through them. Readers don’t want to plough through paragraphs of detailed description (unless they’re Dickens fans – each to their own, or, as my beloved Kay would say, different strokes for different folks) but they also want a vivid sense of what’s happening. And an editor is another pair of eyes able to point out where this kind of writing can be cut and inserted. If you’re self-editing, that’s hard to do, I think. Certainly, I have found it hard in my own work to know where more and where less is needed.

conker editingAfter getting used to swinging that axe, then, I’ve been working on planting new little trees (to extend the metaphor further than it has any right to go).

Stay tuned for next week’s instalment: adding dialogue!

Morgawse I, The Empty Throne, out now!

Click here for The Editing Diaries (Part 5)


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