Teachers Write 7/22/13 Mini-Lesson Monday with David Lubar

Good morning! Guest author David Lubar is here with your Monday morning mini-lesson. David is the author of about twenty book s for young readers as well as a game designer. You can read lots more about him on his website, but for now, he’s joining us with today’s mini-lesson.

Double Duty by David Lubar

         There’s a scene in My Rotten Life where the main character accidentally ruins dinner. In the first draft, this moment is followed with:

            Dad grabbed the phone and ordered a pizza.

            That’s a perfectly fine line. It lets the reader know what happened, and shows that the father isn’t annoyed. But during one of my revision passes, I realized I could do a lot more with that line. I changed it to:

            “I’ll order a pizza,” Dad said, hitting number 2 on the speed dial.

            There are several things to notice, here. First, I preserved all the information from the original version. Dad is ordering a pizza. He’s not visibly upset. But I also used the line as an opportunity to reveal information about the family. Obviously, they order pizza a lot. Going even deeper, some readers will catch the joke that not only is the pizzeria on speed dial, it is in the crucial #2 spot, usually reserved for friends or family.

            The thrust of this essay is that you, as a writer, should always look for opportunities to get extra work out of what you write. But, as a side note, I want to point out that “number 2 on the speed dial” is a great example of the reason why it is often better to show than tell. By giving the reader something to think about, I have inspired him or her to solve a problem, draw a conclusion, and experience a small “aha!” moment. Essentially, I’ve tossed out a small puzzle. The reader has interacted with my story. The reader has moved from passive to active. This is one way to get your reader immersed in your story. Immersion is good.

            But, back to the topic at hand, always look for ways that you can get extra mileage out of your prose. Let’s start, right off the top, with titles. It’s great when a title has more than one meaning, or when it foreshadows something about the story (without giving away enough to spoil any surprises). Since I write a lot of short stories, I have the pleasure of inventing titles a lot more often than novelists. (Not counting those novelists who write a book a week.) In the next Weenies collection (a series of short-story collections currently comprising seven books), I have a story about a boy trapped in a butcher shop. The meat in the case pulls together to form a monster. The working title was “The Butcher Shop.” In the end, I called it “Dead Meat.” Deliciously, this title carries a variety of meanings.

            In Extremities: Stories of Death, Murder, and Revenge (I feel compelled to point out that I’m a much nicer guy than my writing might indicate), the story about a boy who is deciding which city to run away to is called “Split Decision.” There’s an added irony to this word choice that I hope resonates with the reader once the full meaning of the ending sinks in. (Given that most author essays on any topic contain some degree of book promotion, I guess I can’t claim it’s a coincidence that I arranged things so this essay appeared the same week Extremities launched.)

            Another great place to look for economy and utility is in dialogue. I will often mingle action and dialogue. This keeps the story moving, and conserves words. For example, consider a scene like this (which I’m writing at this very moment as an example, so it will probably not be deathless prose):

            I got in the passenger side of Jake’s Mustang. He slipped behind the wheel and fired up the engine. We pulled away from the curb and took a left on Baker St.

            “Do you think Angie will be at the party?” I asked.

            “Sure,” he said. “She loves costume parties.”

            “I hope I don’t look stupid,” I said. “I think Robin Hood might have been a bad choice. I’ll have to carry this ridiculous bow all night.”

            “You always look stupid,” Jake said. “You should concentrate on not looking stupider. That would be a win.”

            Okay. That’s not a bad scene. But we can compress it and make it flow by letting the action take over for some of the uses of “said.” (Though “said” is invisible, and nearly always fine to use.) I’ll take a shot at it. Again, I’m doing this in real time, on the fly, so you can see revision in action.

 (1)      I got in the passenger side of Jake’s Mustang. “Do you think Angie will be there?”

            “Sure. She loves costume parties.” He got in and pulled away from the curb.

(2)       “I hope I don’t look stupid,” I said as I went through the contortions necessary to stash the longbow in the back seat. “Maybe Robin Hood was a bad choice.”

“You always look stupid,” Jake said. He turned onto Baker St. “You should concentrate on not looking stupider. That would be a victory.”

            The purest example of what I’m talking about is in #1. Dialogue and action are combined, with no use of “said.” I also eliminated some of Jake’s actions that didn’t need to be stated. (Again, they don’t have to be removed, but if they stay, they should be there for a reason.) Two side notes. I changed “be at the party” to “be there” to avoid the repetion of “party” with “parties.” It also adds a tiny bit of suspense as the reader wonders where “there” is. (Capote fans will know it’s not in Kansas.) Also, “He got in and pulled away…” is awkward. I’d change in on the next revision. I might need to add a sentence, since there are several actions being covered. (Getting in the car, starting it up, pulling away from the curb. Any or all of these might not need to be stated. But we don’t want the reader to think Jake is still on the outside, and then be jolted when he starts driving. Sadly, it’s often possible to make things worse when trying to make them better.)

            In #2, I left in the “said,” to show that this is always an option, and blended it with an action, but I also did something more important. I not only combined the action with the dialogue in the paragraph, but found an opportunity to reveal a bit about the main character, who doesn’t think about stashing the bow until he is in the car. (In the next pass, I’ll have to do research to see whether Mustangs have a back seat. Often, our additions lead to a need to change something else. And I’ll have to decide whether Jake has to duck during the bow stashing.)

            In #3, I used “said,” and then a separate action. There are infinite ways to handle these things. The trick (or art) is to find the version that is most pleasing to your own ear, but to also develop an appreciation for prose that serves more than one function. The other trick is to only do this when it improves the passage.

            Take a careful look at any descriptive passages in your work. These are often great candidates for compression since we tend to describe things as they play out in our linear thoughts. Backstory and other passages communicating essentail information can also be enlisted to carry extra loads. Look for ways to use them to reveal character or solidify setting. Merge them with action when it makes sense. Combine minor characters, too, if you can.

            One final word. I approach all of this as an enjoyable mental task, an art, and a challenging puzzle. How can I do more with this sentence? It’s fun. It’s rewarding. And your readers will appreciate it almost as much as you do. Happy writing. And happy reading. I understand there are some wonderful books hitting the shelves this week.

Note from Kate: Thanks, David! In the comments today, feel free to share a snippet from your work-in-progress that you think illustrates this – or simply reflect/ask questions about today’s lesson. Happy writing!

15 Replies on “Teachers Write 7/22/13 Mini-Lesson Monday with David Lubar

  1. I love going to Costco’s on a Saturday afternoon. At the end of every aisle, there is someone with a mini oven or small plastic cups offering samples.

    I am thinking about those trips to Costco on this rainy Monday morning, trailing behind our new puppy as she learns to “go in the grass.”

    It hits me.

    Whatever Pepper leaves in the grass will be something she has recently eaten, whether it was hers to eat or not.

    I walk behind her as she ambles through the backyard.

    And then it happens. Pepper hunkers down and leaves the smallest poop in the grass. Like a small Cheeto pretending to be a poop.

    I think to myself. Hmm. . .it’s an ex-sample. I chuckle quietly as I take the sandwich bag out of my shorts pocket and get ready to collect it into the bag for our trip to the veterinarian.

  2. Thanks David – this exercise really helped me to visualize and describe a scene from a previous exercise. I appreciate your guidance.

    “You CAN’T take it with you!”
    “But Mom!’ It’s mine! Grandma gave the quilt to me. I can do what I want with it!” retorted Sandy as she threw her favorite book, Homesick on the bed along with piles of her books, shirts and shorts, toiletries. A rat’s nest like tangle of recharging chords nestled among them. On the floor was a huge, framed blue backpack with its flap gaping open like a mouth waiting to be fed.
    On the other bed lay the quilt. The vibrant colors of various shapes were pieced together with decorative stitches. There was no pattern but the patches evoked many pictures of the sky or ocean or the mountains.
    “Charlotte Louise Ainsley!”
    Her mom was absently running her hands through the tangle of chords.
    “That quilt is not just a quilt. I can’t tell you how many generations ago one of your ancestors made it – that crazy quilt may have been sewn by your great-great-great, I don’t know how many greats…grandmother while traveling on the Oregon trail and I am not having you take it.”
    “Well, I am on the trail to China– it can’t be much worse than the Oregon Trail and I intend to bring the quilt with me.” Sandy said while grabbing a pile of shorts and feeding them into the blue backpack.
    “Just because you won a prestigious scholarship to study in Hangzhou doesn’t mean that you are smart about practical matters! It is not prudent to take such a valuable item to the other side of the world.” Said her mother while beginning to check off items on the packing list.
    “You don’t understand! I just want a piece of home with me,” yelled Charlotte as she and ran out of the room and slammed the door.
    Charlotte fumed to herself, no one is going to stop me, I’m taking that quilt. As she passed her Mom’s study she remembered one more thing that she wanted to take – yet another recharging chord. She was about to crawl under the desk to unplug the chord when she noticed a letter on the desk:

    Dear Mrs. Ainsley,
    Thank you for your inquiry. Our auction company is very interested in the 1800’s crazy quilt that you are offering for sale. We would like to make an appointment to inspect this item and make an appraisal. Please get in touch with us as soon as possible.
    Arthur Tate of Tate Antiques

    Tears streamed down Charlotte’s face. Now she knew. Her son or daughter would never sleep under this crazy quilt.

    1. Jennifer, I felt like I was an observer in the room for this mother/daughter conversation and I felt Charlotte’s pain when she realized what was happening. I love the last line that “her son or daughter would never sleep under this crazy quilt.” – powerful and I want to read more! Amazing.

  3. I’ve been busy with revisions that often involve combining or slimming scenes I had written more than one way, and today’s exercise is great for trimming out excess wording. Here is one section I played with:

    * * *
    The crunching rumble of tires on the hotel drive casts itself misleadingly as if it comes from out over the lake, the sound preceding sight of headlights bending round the fairy hill.

    Aidan watches Roonan watching the car.

    “You’ve heard they’re decommissioning,” Aidan says. “There’s a place to take the guns, no questions asked.”

    Roonan doesn’t answer. It is the Americans. The mother will be first to get out, then the sister. The girl will be last. She will walk most slowly, maybe veering off to lean on the wall above the cliff, staring out over the lake to where the small island is slowly vanishing in darkness.

    “Have ye heard from your girl Chiara?” Aidan baits him.

    Roonan takes his point, no need to answer. There is no Chiara, beyond a girl he’d dated some years back in Drogheda.

    “The girl from the hotel?” his man presses, surprised to have been accurate. “Are you serious?”

    “Leave it alone.”

    They watch the American girl, waiting, both knowing Roonan will stand and go after her.

    “Would you leave with her?”

    “To America?”

    “You won’t live here. You know that, don’t you Mick? I’d have it any other way, but you must know as well as anyone…”

    The iron chair scrapes the slate as Roonan stands. “I do. I do know, Aidan. Thank you for your honesty.”

  4. Following today’s guidance (thanks, David), I took my description of scenery from last Thursday’s quick write (thanks, Erin) which was inspired by the minilesson on micro-tension (thanks, Linda) and compressed it about 10%…

    In the countryside, I’ve seen inviting hills – bumps of jade grass that call out to be climbed. Not even climbed, really, because the ascent’s so effortless. A solitary apple tree and its pool of cool shade awaits at the top. One practically feels lifted, toes shushing over the green carpet among dandelion sunbursts that wiggle in the breeze. Sad to say the hill I’m recalling now is not one of these: more craggy than smooth; brown and gray, not green; and instead of a tree at the top, there hunkers a crumbling stone well. Tricky footing and bitter gusts guarantee this will be a climb – an arduous one – for Jack and his pail.

    1. Just occurred to me to create more of a puzzle by changing the last half and sticking consistently with first person, leaving the narrator unnamed for now. Compare:

      In the countryside, I’ve seen inviting hills – bumps of jade grass that call out to be climbed. Not even climbed, really, because the ascent’s so effortless. A solitary apple tree and its pool of cool shade awaits at the top. One practically feels lifted, toes shushing over the green carpet among dandelion sunbursts that wiggle in the breeze. Sad to say the hill before me now is not one of these: more craggy than smooth; brown and gray, not green; and instead of a tree at the top, there hunkers a crumbling stone well. Tricky footing and bitter gusts guarantee this will be a climb – an arduous one – for me and my pail.

  5. First Day of the Last of My Life

    Who knew the full moon could be so loud? The light shining through my carelessly left open window shade had apparently shattered my sleep-like-a-rock record. The familiar sounds that generally lulled me to sleep…my little brother’s occasional dream giggles, the yapping neighbor’s chihuahua, and the swish-koosh-whine of the nearby traffic, were all still there; so, it had to be the moon making the difference.

    I looked at the moon. Nothing. Then it hit me. The image. My mother pleading, “Don’t let him get ahold of you babe. You’ve remembered your head gear, right?” And my father, in guttural pep talk mode, “Get in there, boy, and get the first hold. Be slippery. Don’t waste time sweating; pin him at the top!” Ah, yes, just two of the many things I was about to face later today.

    It was time to take control. No school nurse was going to get me killed, and I couldn’t concentrate on survival if I arrived with my two helicopters. I formed a plan and waited for the sun to rise. With no sheep to count, I methodically went through the list of things I had put in my gym bag. Sneakers, check. Socks, check. Uniform, check. Head gear, ‘Yes, Mom.’

    The moment the moonlight changed to sunlight, I was up, executing my plan. With clean teeth, combed hair, mostly clean clothes, and the duffle bag on my shoulder, I sprinted downstairs, grabbed the piece of toast my mom had waiting for me, and chugged the orange juice.

    “See you at the gym later, Mom. Match starts at nine. Don’t worry. Just getting a head start. ” I bounded for the door just as my little brother started wailing about the glass of milk he spilled. Little brothers can be a pain, but this time the tike helped me make a clean break.

    Whew! Now what?

  6. Wendi,

    I remember anxiety-wakefulness like this when I was a kid. (Mine was related to music performances and gymnastics.) Your descriptions brought me back to those times, and I like your character\’s exit. One question: which one is yappy — the neighbor? or the chihuahua? 🙂

  7. David,
    This is an excellent lesson and peek into the nuts and bolts of a master-writer’s craft. Thank you for your encouragement to create small puzzles for readers so that they are highly-engaged.

  8. Great question, Diana. lol Thanks. It’s the yappy chihuahua, so will fix that post-haste.

  9. Here\’s a before and after of a paragraph I worked on today. I ended up lengthening it rather than shortening it, but I think I was much more purposeful with my use of words. Additional critiques are greatly appreciated!

    BEFORE: That night, after supper, Cora was reading a book in her bedroom when her dad came in to see her. His “dad” personality at home was a little different than his “chief” personality at the firehouse. A little gentler, a little more silly… Cora set her book on the nightstand and looked up at him. He sat on the edge of her bed.

    AFTER: That night, after supper, Cora was re-reading Charlotte’s Web in her bedroom when her dad came in to see her. At the firehouse, her dad was “chief.” He always dressed in rugged clothing – heavy-duty pants with lots of pockets for tools and supplies and T-shirts with the fire company logo and streaks of black grease. At home, he was just Dad. Tonight, he was wearing soft, flannel pajama pants and the silly, oversized, Smurf slippers that Cora’s brothers had bought him for Father’s Day. Cora tucked a firetruck bookmark into Charlotte’s Web to save her page and set it carefully on her nightstand as her father sat down on the edge of her bed.

  10. This is an excerpt from my short story “A Tale of Two Ladies” that I’ve been working on for the CT wrtg. project. I’ve been pounding away at the ‘show-don’t-tell’ aspect here.
    This scene is right after Cassady has thrown her chicken free instead of handing it over to Granddaddy to be butchered. (Please pardon the formatting -lost all the indents when copying!)
    She lands awkwardly on her gimpy foot, squawks and wobble-runs her way to the end of the paddock, hops up to the top rail, misses, and crawls under instead, her good foot leading.
    She does not look back.
    Within moments her little chicken brain is tilting this way and that just like her head. She scratches and starts pecking the ground for bugs like nothing ever happened.
    I hear Cliff clear his throat behind me as the stinging warning of tears closes mine. I try to steady my face, keep it impassive; I am a farmer after all. I have done this plenty of times, it’s a completely natural part of the life process, but this time I just couldn’t do it. I let my granddaddy down.
    I sniffle and snuffle, and cough and choke a bit on my own snot.
    “Mr. Summers, sir?”
    I can feel Granddaddy’s eyes leave me. I can’t look at him. Not yet. I hear him scratch his head, disturbing the few sweaty hairs that are still there.
    “I was wondering if, well, sir, if, it had to be this particular chicken. Today. Could we possibly make an exchange?” I chance a look at Cliff. He’s standing tall. They are the same height. I hadn’t noticed before.
    When Granddaddy starts his thinking Cliff winks at me. My heart tumbles with hope and something else.
    Granddaddy pulls at his chin the way seasoned farmers do. He squints and looks off in the distance. Then he rubs under his chin like I do with the barn cats, keeps that sun-bright look to his eye. I hear the stubble sing across the tops of his fingers. He’s considerin’, deep considerin’.
    I snuffle once more, not really meaning to. I feel blotchy. I am sure I am all blotchy. Cliff looks at me, not the way he looked at Beth Anne, but I feel warm all the same. He smiles. Another heart tumbler. A slight movement of that eyebrow, another secret. No one I know can move eyebrows that way. He says to Granddaddy, “Sir, I’d like to buy that chicken off’n you.”
    Granddaddy’s thinkin’, a slow-farmer thinkin’. He knows his answer, Cliff knows his answer, even I know his answer, but we go through the motions anyway. He rolls his lips over his teeth, making sounds like he’s chewing tobacco, even though he’s not. We wait.

  11. Thanks David, for the concrete examples of what you meant by “double duty”. The right combination between action and dialogue is a challenge- but your thought process helped me understand this part of the writer’s craft better.