Tag Archives: Zoe Gilbert

Show not Tell

This post follows a point I made in my ‘Inbetweeny Land’ post.

I’ve just found a practical way to avoid explicitly stating how a character feels. As I’m writing, I note down on a scrap of paper exactly how he/she feels, so I don’t lose the feeling I want to express. Then I can take my time to show this, using imagery / exposition / an action that evokes this feeling. The result is far more atmospheric.

Inbetweeny Land

I’m living in Inbetweeny land at the moment. Inbetweeny land is the disconcerting black hole you fall into when you finish a novel.

Inbetweeny Land - actually the Pyrenees

Inbetweeny Land – actually the Pyrenees mountains

What’s great about writing novels part-time is that they take years to finish. Well, mine do.

You get into a comfortable writing rhythm and you know where you’re headed. Then, one day: shit! It’s finished.

You’ve spent a year since the end of the first draft polishing your work. You secretly hope that it’s perfect and will be snapped up by an agent immediately – but you can already hear the rational voice inside you howling in laughter at your naivety. What seemed flawless and original on the day you finished editing it somehow rots into a decaying heap of clichés, unoriginal plots and mundane characters as the days pass.

You send the file off to a trusted writer/reader friend to get some feedback. Once you’ve overcome your surprise that all those years of work don’t even weigh one mega in an email, you ask yourself, “What now?”

Welcome to Inbetweeny land. Come and sit down in your office chair, spin around a little and contemplate your freedom. Remember the things you wanted so desperately to do that you considered abandoning your novel to do them? Suddenly, they have lost their appeal.

You know that in a few weeks (or months? What if it’s so terrible that my critiquing friends take a year to struggle through it?) you’ll receive some great feedback. At first you’ll resist your friends’ comments. Their words will make you think about the issues, however, and you’ll eventually want to open the novel and plunge into another revision.

But not yet. You’ve got to forget it completely for a few months. Meanwhile…

There’s a new novel flirting with the fringes of your imagination, tempting you to surrender to its virginal provocation. But you know you’ll only have to drop it when the current novel limps home, scarred with pencil slashes and exclamation marks.

What you need is an Inbetweeny Mission.

My Inbetweeny Mission is to practise writing short stories. I’ve never written a short story I’ve been happy with for more than a week, so I’ve challenged myself to understand where I’m going wrong. Which means, of course, reading and analysing lots of short stories.

This is great fun. A good short story opens a world and keeps you thinking for days. They are the XO cognacs of literary beverages. Look at the work of Jon McGregor, Alice Munro, Ali Smith, George Saunders and Sara Maitland, for starters.

Writing a good short story is a different matter. There is plenty of advice on the Internet, and today I came across a nugget that glistened.

It came from Zoe Gilbert. I was lucky enough to meet her on an Arvon course last year. Her skill impressed me (and everyone else, I’m sure). She has just won the Costa Short Story Award for ‘Fishskin, Hareskin’ and I read an interview she gave for Thresholds. In it, she says she “tries to avoid ever stating what a character feels, explicitly”. Thank you, Zoe. That’s a good challenge.

So now it’s time to play. Any takers? Try to write a scene in which you show how the characters feel without stating their feelings explicitly. Have fun.