‘Writing is fun’ or ‘Novels are an exercise in extreme delayed gratification’ — a workshop with Christine Bongers.
It is a sultry day in early November during a Write Links meeting at the State Library Queensland.
A tall, beautiful, youthful woman walks into a library meeting room... the crowd bustles, herded by another tall, beautiful youthful woman (with an intriguing European accent). The air is thick with anticipation —scraping chairs, coughs and murmurs, shuffles and smiles. Today is the day: a workshop with Christine Bongers, on the craft and pleasure of writing for children.
If shorthand were still a thing, I’d have copied Christine’s workshop, verbatim — it was that good! Here is what I gleaned:
PART I: The First Draft
“Perfection is the enemy of finishing”
All you can do in your first draft is write the first draft. Focus on character, conflict and context. Christine admits to writing and editing as she goes, but only to the point where she can move from one dramatic unit to the next.
She also believes that ‘real’ writing starts at the rewriting phase. (For Christine, writing a first draft feels like being constipated... um...).
Tip: the first draft is for the writer; the following drafts are for the reader.
Write – Edit – Polish – Think – Repeat
We do this to find out what needs to be shown and what needs to be told.
Let’s replace ‘show, don’t tell’ with ‘show and tell’.
Scenes are dramatic units where we can show. Tell the ‘unimportant’ bits in between dramatic units (more on this later!).
PART II: Structural Edits?
A structural edit is a big-picture analysis to find out if your story works. Ask yourself these questions: does it make sense? Does it work? Do the sub-plots have any use? How many characters can you kill off? Are your characters and relationships engaging, believable and well-rounded? (Christine once received a 19-page structural edit in the mail from her publisher. She survived. The baby flourished.).
Tip: you can do anything if you’re clever and you make it work.
PUT YOUR FIRST DRAFT AWAY. After you have finished the first draft (otherwise known as your baby), put it aside so that you can forget it. This will give you some perspective on how ugly (or pretty) your baby is.
Tip: Structural edits are are like autopsying puppies — do it and do it well, so fewer puppies die.
Pay attention to your main characters
Who wants to read a book where they hate the main character? They must be relatable.
Point of view
Is the point-of-view consistent, authentic and engaging? (Be ready to trash an 80,000 word novel and start again. Christine did!).
‘Voice’ is the way the words sound on the page. Watch out for little idiosyncrasies in your writing. Are there habitual repetitions you are making, without realising?
Pace and flow
Does your story move forward, does it take the reader with it? If it moves too quickly, it will exhaust the reader, wear them out. Look out for sidetracks and dead ends. Is the tension building too fast or too slow?
Tell us what your character is feeling! Not just ‘she did this, then she did this, then she did...’.
Dialogue is a vivid opportunity to move plot, reveal character and create tension.
Make it real! Give it life! Rid it of clunk! Make your characters sound true and entertain your audience. Tip: listen into phone conversations on the bus! Take note of any entertaining turns of phrase.
Tip: Story is THE BOSS. Everything has to serve the story.
Do a line-by-line scan for clichés, repetition, lazy adverbs, idiosyncratic bits & pieces.
Part III: How to Show and tell.
First, ask the experts: Don’t tell me the moon is shining, show me the glint of light on broken glass. Anton Chekhov.
Showing omits detail efficiently. It makes scenes vivid and allows the reader to experience the story through thoughts and senses, rather than through exposition.
Why not tell?
A synopsis will tell; a story will show.
Examples: ‘The crackle of dry grass underfoot’ shows us it’s hot and there’s a drought.
Make a scene bloom! How?
Show and Tell — it’s not an either/or. It’s about knowing when and how. Telling is quick, showing takes time. Know when your story needs to be slow, or where it needs to move quickly.
Tell what your reader needs to know — just enough to move them onto the next dramatic scene.
Tip: don’t tell us your character is an arrogant pain in the arse — let him swagger!
Yes, but how exactly?
Use verbs: stories are about what people DO.
Be specific: specifics tell the story. Deploy telling details. For example, imagine the new kid dropped off at school for the first time. If he is dropped off in a limo, what could that say about him? How much story could be written around that one tiny detail? Perhaps he is a pop start; perhaps his parents are drug lords; perhaps his dad is the chauffeur. Specific details build expectation and set up character.
The story is seen through the prism of the main character’s experience. Experience = ‘doing’.
Don’t be too concerned with themes — these become evident after you’ve written your story. Trust the process.
Dialogue makes the reader experience the story as if they were there — make it entertaining! It reveals character, furthers the plot and is a very good tool for subverting expectations! Don’t overuse it.
Metaphor shows actions, reactions and emotional landscape. A story isn’t just about what happens, but how what happens affects your main character. Show us how your character is changed by the story.
Thank you, Christine Bongers!
Story by Zoe Collins