Tuesday, April 19, 2011

This Old Dog

I’m working hard at trying to be a different writer. Scratch that. I’m working hard at writing differently, expanding my natural voice to include some new tricks. Or more accurately, one new trick: telling.

After twenty years of writing primarily YA I’m frustrated with my writing voice: so much showing, such a reliance on scenes and dialogue. A few months back, when speaking about the difference between young adult and adult fiction, Ron Koertge (now on Inkpot sabbatical), cited “velocity” as the key. Dialogue and scene work usually has more velocity than telling, not least because of the white space involved.

Mind you, the novel I’m working on now is not a YA; it’s an A, with some serious core issues (mental illness, adult children, art and faith). The first draft is driving me nuts—so much quipping dialogue, so many short scenes. It all feels staged, moving from one set piece to another.

I just read Nicole Krauss’s The Great House. What wonderful telling! And last week I finished Ward Just’s Rodin’s Debutante. Just is a fabulous teller/writer, my favorite writer, in fact. A couple of weeks ago I finished Jonathon Franzen’s Freedom--pages and pages of telling (and some lovely scene work too). I’m not trying to ape these writers, mind you. But their work does encourage me in my efforts to slow my own down.

So how am going about it? When I work on student manuscripts I often comment when something should be shown “As it happens,” in other words, as a scene. Now in my own writing I’m taking scenes and writing them after the fact as a recap, but from a different vantage: 1. Hour later 2. Week later and 3. Five years down the road. I also create a childhood incident that somehow connects to the contemporary scene and I allow my POV character to reflect back.

So far not a lot of this offstage work is showing up in the revised scenes—they are still sounding very Marsha Qualey-ish. But doing the exercises has allowed me to slow down, I think, and widen the emotional scope and perspective on what’s happening in the story. And I believe that, along with velocity, is another distinction between YA and A.


  1. Great House was a beautiful book-- with such lovely (albeit occasionally depressing) thoughts on writing. I'll admit, I found it a little heavy handed on the telling. I think I prefer a mixture, as in Freedom.

    So looking forward to reading your A book, Marsha!

  2. Right now we're reading all the Narnia Books to our 7 year old. There is quite a lot of telling in those books. I think this topic of telling and showing fascinating because it is so cultural, both to the time one is writing and also the place. I don't have any hard evidence but I think England puts up with more telling by it's authors than this side of the pond. (I am speaking of children's work). Also impressive that you are stretching beyond your norm. I'd expect nothing less from the challenging Ms. Qualey.

  3. Is this the story you read from, where the character goes into an artist's studio? I still have a vivid picture of that setting--so whatever you are doing, keep at it. And we should talk about Freedom sometime...I had a mixed reaction.

  4. I applaud your desire to grow, of course. But as your student, I can't help but wonder what the heck is wrong with being Marsha Qualey-ish?