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Posts Tagged ‘writing trends’

I wrote this article a few years ago, when I first embarked on my writing journey. When I re-read it a few days ago, having just resurfaced from a fabulous writers conference (another topic for another post!), I realized it applies perfectly even today. So, here goes….

Posted originally on March 28, 2011

The other day, I was watching “Chopped Champions” on Food Network. (“Chopped” is a show where four chefs compete against each other; one chef is let go–or chopped–per round of cooking, based on the criteria of judging they have.) In the episode I was watching, four winners from previous rounds came back to butt heads with each other for bigger stakes.

As the kitchen in the show grew hotter, I began to realize the uncanny similarities between cooking and writing. I took away some basic lessons from that one episode–lessons that are not new, but ones we tend to take for granted.

  • Take time to prep your ingredients: The judges tasted grit in the dish one of the contestants had prepared. The chef had neglected to clean the main ingredient–sea urchin–thoroughly. Instead of impressing the judges, her dish turned them off. She was “chopped” instantly.
    • Lesson: It is important to sweat the basic stuff. When writing a new novel/story, research the period and place as much as you can. This will add authenticity to your world-setting and your characters will feel real.
  • Depend on your dish: One contestant got promoted to the second round even though his dish did not meet the judges’ approval. This happened only because one of the other chefs had left dirt in her main ingredient. However, in the very next round, that guy got chopped because he didn’t season his dish very well.
    • Lesson: Do not depend upon others’ failure/success to give you a boost. It only goes so far. When it comes to writing, do not concentrate on the existing trends or non-trends in the industry. By the time you finish writing your book those same trends may be out of fashion or more likely would have jaded the readers. Write about a subject you are passionate about, that you believe would make a fascinating read.
  • Seasoning is important: The chef who got chopped in the second round had forgotten to season his chicken. From what I deduced by then, this chef was not bad to begin with (he had to be good to have been titled “champion” in a previous tussle), but then he had probably begun to coast along rather than letting his passion for cooking to come through in his dishes. This apathy had cost him his advancement to the next round.
    • Lesson: However good a writer you are, if your story is missing the seasoning–a heart–then it won’t go anywhere. You, the writer, has to believe in the story before the reader will.
  • Your previous dish won’t speak for you: The lady who was let go because she left dirt in her food entered this competition as a favorite. I could tell that the judges were almost reluctant to let her go, but the mistake she made was not a simple one to overlook. 
    • Lesson: You are only as good as your latest product. Even a successful writer can rest on his/her laurels for only so long.
  • Cook to the best of your ability and then stand back: The chef who won in that episode was the least experienced of the lot. However, he cooked passionately and to the best of his abilities. This finally proved to be the best strategy.
    • Lesson: It is better to be constantly improving and growing in your trade than to be a flash in the pan. Don’t aim to be a one-book wonder. It’s important to realize and accept the fact that not all writers are created equal. However, one doesn’t need to be über-talented to be a good writer. Keep up your passion for writing and your work will shine as a result.
  • Concentrate on showcasing your best dishes: Two of the contestants kept getting worked up by peeking at others’ prep work during the cooking rounds. The third one kept his nose to the grindstone, so to speak, and concentrated only on creating his best dish every single time with the given ingredients. He won.
    • Lesson: Don’t let others’ success or talent intimidate you. Everyone has their own slot in every field. Keep on the lookout and you’ll find your groove.
  • Use the ingredients you know to the best effect: In one round, as I already mentioned, the contestants were given sea urchins as the main ingredient. One of the chefs had never worked with it before, and he was nervous about it. In the end, though, he took the best route possible: among the rest of the ingredients he had, he chose the ones he knew best and paired them with the sea urchin and created a sauce. He was basically faking it. It worked. That sauce blew away the judges.
    • Lesson: If you have to fake it, then do it confidently. It is good, even paramount, to do a lot of research before you embark on a new novel or story. However, sometimes, no amount of research will seem to be enough. For example, if your story takes place in the next millennium, chances are high that your imagination goes the extra mile than real, hard research. In such a case, remember you are the one with the most expertise when it comes to the world you are building.

What lessons (about life, writing, painting, sewing or anything at all) would you like to share with the rest of us today?

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Recently, I began to read chapter books (younger middle grade) for research purposes. I started with books by the prolific author, Judy Blume.

I instantly observed a trend in these books. The more I read the more obvious the pattern seemed. Finally, it got to the point where my research came down to reading for the sake of noticing the trend rather than the content and how the plot is handled.

I realized then that I needed to get the question burning inside me answered before I could get back to reasonable research mode.

That’s when I decided to pose the question to Laura Backes, one of the editors of Children’s Book Insider Newsletter.

Here’s the question I posted in the chat forum in CBI Clubhouse (by the way, this site holds a wealth of information about writing for children. If you haven’t checked it out already, you should!) and Laura’s answer to it:

  • Hema : Laura, as a novice to writing children’s fiction, I come across the phrase “show, don’t tell” quite a bit. However, now that I’m reading chapter books (by Judy Blume, among others), I notice that for this age group, most authors tell more than show. The narrator is usually made to give a funny account of the incidents rather than showing them. Is this the norm for this age group, or is it a case of “established authors get away with breaking rules, but not unpublished ones”? Any advice would be greatly appreciated! Thanks!

 

  • Laura Backes : Hema: Good question about “show, don’t tell.” First of all, if you’re reading novels that were written before the early 1990’s (as were many of Judy Blume’s) then there will be more telling. That’s just the older writing style. Today, editors expect authors to do more showing. And if the story is written in first person, then essentially the entire book is the narrator’s dialogue. Telling takes place more often in dialogue.

“Showing” is most important when describing a character’s traits (don’t say she’s “sweet”, show us her sweet nature through her actions), a character’s feelings (avoid phrases like “he felt sad” or “she was scared”; instead, use body language, action and dialogue), or in describing the physical aspects of a person or setting.

Ah! So, it was not the age group for which it was written, but the “age” of the book itself that dictated the style that I observed.

As Laura so rightly points out, writing style seems to have changed quite a bit over the past few decades. In the past, it was not such a no-no to just make one of the characters (or the narrator) “tell” a bit of the back story, while “showing” for the rest of the book. But, not so now!

Writers have to be extremely wary of falling into the trap of telling a story as opposed to showing it. (Hmm… does it mean that the word “story-telling” should be changed to “story-showing”?)

I’m not saying that this new trend is bad; not at all. “Showing” an incident makes it stand out better than “telling” it. This technique also makes the book better and interesting — it keeps the writing more active, even if the method itself is a little harder to master.

I began to mull over how this shift in writing has come into existence, and why it is so rooted in the publishing industry (I never noticed how this works in adult books, but I’m guessing it is about the same, but I’ll stick to children’s literature here) now.

I came up with the following reasons as to why this writing model may have become the vogue:

  • Children have so many ways to entertain themselves (aka distractions): video games, T.V shows, interactive toys, and movies to just name a few. Yes, there are books, too, but they don’t figure at the top of this list for the majority of the kids. Why? Because they are the least interactive of the lot.

So, books have some stiff competition and cannot afford to be considered boring even for one page, or they’ll be set aside for better entertainment devices. One way for books to avoid being overlooked is to get as close to being interactive and sensational as possible.

 

  • Children these days are so used to everything (toys, shows, movies) imagining things for them ready-made that they are prepared to tax themselves a little less than the previous generations by reading something and imagining it for themselves. “Showing” helps them picture what’s going on in the book a little more easily.

 

  • From parents’ perspective, a DVD costs almost the same as a book. If a book fails to grab the attention of their child, then why not spend the same amount of money wisely on something (like the DVD) that does successfully keep the kid’s attention?

 

  • All things considered and with the economy the way it is, agents, editors and publishers do not want to back up any book that may not have captured the imagination of a large audience, and does not promise to keep the attention span of the children and their parents for a long time.

Basically, the parameters of what makes a book “good” have changed and are evolving every day.

A couple of decades from now, we may see technological advances that we cannot even imagine today. I wonder where that leaves books?

What changes and trends in writing styles do you suppose those advancements will demand from writers?

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