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How To Make The Unlikable More Digestible

What I Learned About Life & Writing From . . . Zucchini

How many kids actually like zucchini? For that matter, how many adults like it? It’s one of those healthy green vegetables that doesn’t have a whole lot of taste, and the texture is somewhat stiff and dry—except when it’s over-cooked and turns mushy and slippery.

Usually, zucchini grows so fast, you can’t keep up with giving it away. But not for us this year. We didn’t get a single one in our tiny plot. Fortunately, I have a dear friend who grows an enormous garden, and she took pity on me and gave me fresh produce—including zucchini.

My kids looked at the dark green squash on the counter and said, “Ewww.”

"But what about all the yummy things I’ve made in the past?" I asked. "Breads, muffins, and cake?"

My oldest just shrugged. "I still don’t like zucchini.”

One night when they were all gone swimming, I decided I really needed to do something with the zucchini before it turned moldy. So, I whipped up a couple loaves of good ol’ zucchini bread. When the kids returned from the pool, the sweet aroma of cinnamon and nutmeg greeted them.

Of course they all rushed into the kitchen, saw the loaves cooling on the counter, and clamored for slices. With a smile, I cut steaming pieces for each of them. And my smile grew only bigger as they tasted their bread and oohed and aahed through each bite.

“I thought you didn’t like zucchini.” I teased my oldest as he stuffed the last of his piece into his mouth.

He grinned. “I still don’t. But I guess the bread’s alright.”

Sometimes we’re better able to digest unlikable things when they’re mixed with other more pleasant ingredients. Or when they’re shredded up and nearly invisible. We get a dose of the healthy without even realizing it.

Isn’t that true in life? Criticism or discipline or difficult feedback is much more palatable when it’s served with a mixture of the positive. It’s easier to swallow and digest the hard things life brings when it’s stirred together with encouragement and love.

And isn’t the same principle true on so many levels with writing? My critique partner is a model example of how to give affirming feedback. Her smiley faces and compliments make the tough comments easier to take.

Even within our stories, we’re wise to shred up the less digestible aspects: primarily the back-story and narration. As our plots unfold, we’re tempted to drop in chunks of information or large glaring paragraphs that explain our characters' motivations or past history.

Yes, we need to get the explanations in somewhere or the story won’t make sense and the characters won’t be as well-rounded. But how can we slip in the information without it being noticeable? In other words, how do we mix in the zucchini aspects of our stories so that the reader will hardly see or taste it?

First we need to know how much “zucchini” we really need. Our readers don’t need as much as we think they do. The large majority of back-story is for us, the writers. It helps us shape our characters into living and breathing beings. We only need to give readers enough to keep them from being confused. In fact, don't you think readers like to piece the story together like a puzzle, coming to a wonderful ah-hah moment, rather than having us hand everything to them all nice and neat?

Second, we need to add in the “zucchini” aspects of the story slowly and smoothly. For the most part we should try not to stop the flow of the story to explain things. This includes scenes where our characters sit in front of a mirror or window and contemplate their lives. Usually such scenes are static with the purpose of filling in the reader. And we risk bringing the story to a halt.

Instead, we have to write the story—the present story. If we look for ways to shred up the narration and back-story and blend it in, often the reader will hardly know it’s there. A sentence here, a small paragraph there. Sometimes insinuations through dialog and in the way our characters act can tell much more about them than words. After all, actions speak louder than words.

What about you? How are you serving your zucchini? Are you learning how to mix criticism within the sweet taste of the positive? And are you careful how much back-story and narration you’re slipping into your stories so that your reader will hardly know it’s there?

P.S. The winner of this week's The Preacher's Bride giveaway is: Beth Sorensen. Congratulations!! I'll be doing ONE more giveaway next week during the final countdown to the official RELEASE DATE! So come back to play again!

33 comments:

  1. Am I weird? I actually really like zucchini.

    Great post. So true. We never need as much back story as we think we do. That's something I had to learn the hard way!

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  2. Well, I love zucchini bread too:) I have had to learn to slip in the back-story as I go--it makes that smooth story so much better.

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  3. Love the analogy. And I guess I'm weird like Katie because I like zucchini too. :)

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  4. My husband calls this pet, pet, poke.

    We practice this a lot in our house. Nice thing said. Nice thing said. Let me have it.

    Happy weekend.
    ~ Wendy

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  5. Hi Jody...I like Zucchini too. I wish you had saved a slice of that bread for me. Well..there is always a next time.
    Now that I am going over my manuscript, I am a bit worried about how much back story and narration to delete. I have an amazing habit of adding loads and loads of back story and narrative paragraphs.

    http://rachnachhabria.blogspot.com/2010/09/13-elements-of-good-story.html

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  6. I prefer stuffed zucchini myself. You are right though, there is a way to make things subtle...like zucchini in the background of a spicy, warm bread.

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  7. Great advice! I often write short short stories, so there sometimes isn't room for even a spoonful of zucchini. :)

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  8. Jody! I found your book yesterday! CANNOT WAIT TO READ IT! It's next on my list... as soon as I finish the one I'm currently reading! Congratulations!

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  9. I try to be honest in any input I give to anyone without being too harsh. I try to use constructive criticism and stay positive and encourage them to continue with what they are doing.

    Basically letting them know not to give up and I am only giving my input.

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  10. Great reminders, Jody. Too much of anything can be overwhelming. (OK, maybe not praise or chocolate.)

    I was guilty of backstory dumps in my early works. What I had to learn was that life is more about what we're doing now and how we're dealing with what happened to us before than it is about dwelling on the past. The same is true for my characters. Someone who's stuck in rut reliving bygone days is static and her/his story isn't interesting. I want characters who are changing and growing.

    I like zucchini--in moderation. =)

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  11. I'm with your kids--I prefer my zucchini in bread and muffins.

    My writing support group goes with the Oreo theory for feedback--sandwich the negative between two positives. Makes it a little easier to take.

    Great post! Thanks for sharing!

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  12. I had way too much backstory in my memoir in its earlier versions. You are so right, though. The writer needs the backstory much more than the reader. Just don't leave loose ends or confusing timelines or make references you haven't explained.
    Karen

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  13. As always, your analogy is brilliant!

    And just what I need to be reminded of as I head into my third and hopefully final revisions of my own book. My editor said this very thing: cut, cut, cut. There's much in one of the sections that's back story and needs to be omitted. She told me this after she praised me for what works. This is the way to do it! Encouragement, then the perceptively honest critique.

    Bless all those good editors out there!! It takes skill to tell a writer what's wrong with the writing without being so harsh that he/she may never want to write again! We have to remember: writers are very sensitive about their work. But then, isn't everyone, no matter what profession they're in?

    BTW, I'm excited to get your book. It should arrive today or tomorrow from Amazon!!
    Ann

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  14. Thanks for a wonderful post! My teacher used a similar analogy in my intro class, but yours makes more sense than hers. (Brownies + Spinach = yeah, nasty.) Anyways, I think that as far as critiquing other people's work, I always temper my critique with a comment on how I see what they were 'trying' to do. If it didn't work, I would offer other solutions or bring up other examples of how it did work.

    In my own work, I catch myself giving too much backstory when I reread and ask myself if this is helping the surface story move along. It helps me to at least get it out, so then when I decide to remove it, I just cut/paste into another document to save for later or just for myself.

    Sometimes, a small turn of phrase can give enough backstory to keep the characters 3D.

    Thanks for the great post!

    P.S Try thinly sliced zucchini, baked on a rack, then sprinkle a Parmesan/garlic mixture and toast more. They are like chips!

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  15. All I can say is you're picking your zucchini too late. It's best when it's young -- no bigger around than the circumference of your thumb and middle finger held in a "oh" shape.

    But then, I like zucchini. The older ones (where the seeds have developed) make good boats to stuff with a mix of sausage, green onions and breading.

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  16. Hey Jody!
    I was a member of Toastmasters(for those of us afraid of public speaking) for about five years. Toastmasters taught us to start out with something positive for those folks being critiqued on their speech,then add some constructive criticism and then end with another positive. It was palatable that way for me.

    My editor did much the same thing lately. I do like zucchini and I'm learning real fast how to chop it up and spread it around my story rather than serving it up plain in a big bowl like brussel sprouts.:) Hope that made sense.

    Loved our chat at conference. Keep writing as our mentor JSB would encourage.:)

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  17. I'll never look at zucchini--or backstory--the same again! Great analogy. Thanks for the thoughts...

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  18. I like zucchini, but I really like zucchini bread! Likewise, critique is much nicer when it's given with a pinch of spice and a dose of sugar. Sorry about your plant this year. The same happened to my peppers.

    BTW...so exciting that your book release is almost here!!!

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  19. Great analogy, Jody. A friend of mine makes zucchini fudge cake. The other ingredients definitely negate the positive influence of the zucchini but it sure is good.

    As far as backstory goes, I took a workshop with Jeanette Ingold and she said to use an eye-dropper to insert your backstory--little bits at a time and just when the reader needs them.

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  20. Oh, Jody, I love this analogy - really love it! And you are right - criticism tastes much better with a dash of praise. :-)

    I received my copy of The Preacher's Bride - woo-hoo! I'll have to send you a picture. I can't wait to read it and post my review. :-)

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  21. I am guilty of overload. My ms is having a complete overhaul and change.
    Courgettes(English name)are yummy.

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  22. I love zucchini deep fried and dipped in ranch. I'm not a very good example!

    What an excellent post. With my first novel, my first two chapters were all backstory! I didn't even realize it until I joined a critique group. Our group does the sandwich method, beginning and ending with the positive, with the hard-to-swallow parts in the middle. Makes it much easier!

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  23. Critiquing seems to be the topic du jour (it was mine today, too), maybe because it's a constant presence in our writing lives. Someone is always going to be evaluating our words so, like your zucchini, we need to find palatable ways of both serving and consuming it.

    It's also good to remember that there's more than zucchini on the plate and sometimes it's okay to pick through the meat of the critique and leave the gristle on the side. I really like Kristen Lamb’s assertion, “All critique is useful. Just not all of it is valuable.”

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  24. I'm one of the weird ones. I really like zucchini.

    Yes, I need a tiny bit of encouragement mixed in with a heavy critique. I'm a little needy that way.

    As far as backstory, I've been accused of backstory dumping from time to time. We definitely have to be careful of that. I'm learning.

    Have fun at your book launch party this weekend!

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  26. Jody, that was a great post. So helpful and encouraging. Thanks. Have a lovely weekend.

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  27. Hi Jody -

    I love zucchini too!

    When I attended a workshop (Nangie101), Nancy Rue and Angela Hunt drilled RUE into our heads. It means: resist the urge to explain.

    Blessings,
    Susan :)

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  28. It wasn't until I became an adult that I started liking zucchini:) Now I can eat on demand!

    Backstory is the same~ I love it, and I want to give my readers a whole loaf. But I'm learning that slice here and there goes a long way.

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  29. I love Katie Ganshert's comment! I like zucchini too but I like it in fettuchini or steamed with carrots and squash, sprinkled with parmesean cheese. Great analogy! And I'm thrilled for you about your book. I can't wait to read it!

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  30. Love the way you illustrated this! A humorous and delectable (if you like zucchini:) way to ponder these points. Great stuff, thanks!
    Blessings,
    Karen

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