I've been poking around Wattpad for the last few days, and at the risk of appearing to be exactly what I am, which is an out-of-touch old man enthusing about something he doesn't fully understand: wow, is it cool.
There's just more energy and excitement around reading and writing on Wattpad than I see anywhere else. (Well, except for my own classroom, of course. Ahem.) And what's really cool about it is that writers now have their very own DIY scene that has never really existed before. I mean, obviously, there have been zines forever, but the zine scene always felt like an adjunct to the music scene, and if you wanted to write a longer work of fiction, you couldn't exactly do that in a zine format.
No, you'd have to copy it and send it around, or email it to your friends who might or might not actually want to read it and desperately crave feedback that you might never get and then...well, you get the idea.
Wattpad allows you to be a writer right now, and possibly get comments and feedback. I saw Mike Watt perform in 2005, and at the end of the show he shouted (perhaps a little optimistically at the long-in-the-tooth crowd): "go start your own band!" This is the punk rock ethic, and books now have this. Go write your own book!
Now, yes, there is a lot of One Direction fan fiction on the site, and very little of what's up there is a polished final product, but that's kind of the point. You've got a whole community of readers and writers spending an hour or more a day reading widely (and since everything there is in pretty short chunks, it's very friendly for reading while in line at CVS or wherever) and sharing feedback and ideas. It's a cool and fertile creative community.
And, like I said, it's full of novice writers. I love the energy and passion that suffuses their work, and there's really one thing I've noticed more than anything else that separates the novice writers from the more experienced ones: how they deal with exposition.
Novice writers tend to do big info dumps on the characters and situations at the beginning of their stories. Actually, more experienced writers sometimes do this too. But it's something I've noticed in a lot of novice fiction.
It's easy to tell people to show and not tell, but it's a little harder to get what that means and how to do it. I am a writing teacher in addition to being an internet curmudgeon, so here's a little exposition exercise I came up with. Maybe you'll find it helpful. Maybe not.
If you're going to steal, you've gotta steal from the best, so let's have a listen to Bobbie Gentry's, "Ode To Billie Joe." But not the whole thing. At least not at once. (Oh, you don't like country songs from the 60's? Too damn bad. You can dis this song when you can tell this much story in 358 words.)
So at the following points, stop the video and ask yourself this: What do I know and how do I know it? (write down your answers if you're feeling ambitious) 1:18. 2:09. 3:00. 3:51. End.
Here are my thoughts (aside from holy cow, look at those fake eyelashes! They make Snooki look restrained!) :
1:18. At this point, we know we're in the American South in the Summer and someone is dead. But we also know that this is a farming family--note how we get "I was out choppin' cotton and my brother was balin' hay." So we know where we are and what time of year it is because we've been told, but we know they are a hardworking farm family because of what we've seen them doing. Note also how Mom tells them to wipe their feet before telling them about Billie Joe's death. A pretty clear signal of how unimportant this death is to (most of) this family.
2:09. The last two verses get the most attention, but this one is just devastating. As before, the mundane stuff about passing food around trumps the news of Billie Joe's death, and the father is pretty contemptuous of him. We also get some insight into both parents here: Papa's got a ton of work to do and doesn't really care about Billie Joe, whereas Mama brings the conversation back to his death: she's a little softer and more sentimental than her husband. We also learn that this family may be hardworking, but they're not necessarily poor: they've got a "lower 40," which implies an upper 40, so we're not just subsistence farming here. Also, Mama talks about Choctaw Ridge like it's a troubled area--perhaps where the poor people live? We're not sure, but it does seem that the family in the song looks down on the area.
3:00. Well, now we know Billie Joe and our narrator had more of a relationship than we knew about before. When they were younger, Billie Joe played a prank on her, and then she was talking to him after church. I just want to point out that at no point does our speaker say, "he was my boyfriend." She never actually explicitly admits to any relationship at all. It's all shown to us with these little details. And once again, pie trumps death as a topic of conversation. We also know that Billie Joe has access to a big saw, which might or might not relate to what comes later.
3:51. Our speaker is the only one not eating. She never tells us she's in shock and grieving: this detail tells it all. Notice also Mama's choice of words; "that nice young preacher"--I think this indicates that he's the guy Mama would like our speaker to date, rather than some guy from Choctaw Ridge. And of course the creepy line about throwing something off the bridge raises questions, but it also tells us everything we need to know about why our speaker's not interested in the preacher: he's a gossipy jerk! Why does he tell Mama this tidbit about the bridge anyway?
End: Brother and Becky Thompson can buy a store, so again, we know there's at least a little bit of money around. And our speaker mourns--she's leaving flowers at what passes for Billie Joe's grave.
There you have it: not only a great song, but the perfect example of how to use economical details to tell your readers (or listeners) everything they know without spelling it out for them. Go do likewise!