Friday, May 18, 2007

Spoon Feeding = Bad

I’m currently embroiled in the process of editing my novel. I think a lot of new writers, and non writers, underestimate the importance of the editing process... so when you say, “I’m editing”, they think, ‘oh, checking the spelling and punctuation...’

The largest part of this, for me, is concentrating on keeping it active and getting rid of the dreaded back story... Back story is the enemy, and I, my friends, am a rampant spoon feeder. I know, in my head, everything that’s brought them here (my characters, that is). I know the intricacies of how, when, where, what and why... but I’m impatient in the first few drafts and have a tendency to tell you exactly how it works.

Writers hear things such as, ‘show don’t tell’ and think they have it locked if they just eliminate the passive verbs... it helps, but that’s not the only factor. Telling information in an active way is no better than telling it in a non active way... It’s all passive.

So, currently, I’m removing all back story which is moving the story faster, but in spots it’s also hard to do... When I’m done with this revision, I may have to go back and add some foreshadowing to beef up the descriptive passages... it’s also a balance where to drop these little nuggets of information, so that the reader maintains a good understanding of the characters’ motivation...

But here’s my philosophical thought for the day. Back story in a novel is often part of the characters’ history – it’s in their past with respect to this telling. It will also completely stop the movement of your story and take the reader out of the action... Just like your own memories and history can take you out of the motion of life today... Spoon Feeding = bad. In fiction and in life.


silken said...

as a non-writer this is something I'd never considered (for the writer) wow! but as a reader, I appreciate not being spoon fed. thanks to the writer's who take the time to make us think in our reading! it makes a better story and more fun!

my husband just did a retreat on this idea of "spoon feeding" last month for several youth groups. A very hard concept for them to receive at this age, as many of them want to be spoonfed, though they constantly say they don't! very thought provoking for all ages!

Merry Jelinek said...

Hi Stacey,

It does make for more interesting prose, and gives the reader a chance to infuse more of their own vantage point into the story... from the writer's perspective, though, I think spoonfeeding is less about underestimating the reader and more about underestimating their own writing... I find that I spoonfeed because I'm not confident that the story is clear enough in the telling.

Most writers, I think, take some time to understand exactly what needs to be winowed out of the telling... for instance, some of the great classics have a ton of passive voice, backstory, and winding prose... but their language itself is poetic so the serious reader will appreciate it. It becomes a balance that I think you can only find when you've become more confident in your own voice...

For me, I've always loved the classics, so my regular writing voice tends toward the literary with a lot of winding prose. I'm only now finding the confidence in my voice to allow me to cut some of the extraneous and trust that a starker, more lively telling will be enough. I'm aiming for fiction that disappears - the story and characters are so compelling that you stop paying attention to the turn of the phrase. That's the best kind of fiction, for me - I love the poetry in a well written piece, but the novels that stay with me are the ones where the author takes a back seat to the story.

That's the goal, anyway.

Thanks for stopping in... great to see you.

Travis Erwin said...

Sound advice that I needed to be reminded of every so often. That still doesn't mean I get it right however but I'm working at it.

Merry Jelinek said...

Hi Travis,

Well, that's the thing with writing... even when we know what should be done, getting it on the page can sometimes be akin to banging your head off a brick wall to make room for a window...

Too bad we can't use sledgehammers in our writing.

Thanks for the visit and comment. I'll stop over shortly to check out your blog.

domestika said...

Merry, as someone who wears the hats of both writer and book editor, depending on the day, I'm just delighted that you've taken time from your own editing to explain the importance of going back to rework and strengthen your novel before flying it off to a publisher, and something of what's involved. It's one of my "pet peeves" -- that all levels of editing are so often confused with (or reduced to) copyediting or proofreading. Truly, I wish that all writers took such proper pride in polishing their work before its submission!

Merry Jelinek said...

Hi Jen,

Honestly, as someone who's dabbled at both sides of the desk, I don't think most author's lack of polish is intentional. I would highly recommend any aspiring author take some coursework, or at least read something, from the editor's/publisher's side of the desk.

You're wandering around in the dark, as a writer, if you're going by ear (because no matter how good your ear is, it has no knowledge of active voice). Writers who take fiction course work and study their favorite authors and read voraciously will have a leg up. But it's usually the first time your work gets passed through a competent editor that you'll hear anything about backstory. And some authors never really get the difference between passive and active... It aint only about the verbage.

I'm a work in progress. I've learned more this year, I think, than I learned in my fiction writing coursework..

Thanks for stopping, Jen, always great to see you.

Jerseygirl89 said...

What a super explanation of the editing process. I know I don't value it enough, but I'm trying to be better. Thanks for the inspiration.

Merry Jelinek said...

Thanks for stopping, jerseygirl.

Editing's hard to figure out, especially when you add the subjectiveness of writing tastes into the equation...

Glad you found it inspiring.